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Ferdinand I and the Cascade of *Headdesks*

By Wojciech Góralczyk | Pajiba Storytellers | June 10, 2011 |

By Wojciech Góralczyk | Pajiba Storytellers | June 10, 2011 |

Storytellers is an ongoing attempt to tease out bits of history or literature that would make damned good films. Because if we throw enough ideas out there, Hollywood might accidentally make something good.

Imagine your city is in peril: the government in shambles, riots in the streets, the laughing head of a diabolical tyrant splayed out across the blood-streaked sky, cartoon-style. In a last-ditch effort, you make a dash for the Bat-Signal, bounding up the stairs until you’re almost out of breath. Finally, you reach the top, open the door, step out onto the roof, and suddenly remember:

Oh right. You’re in Bulgaria.

This was pretty much the case when the Bulgarian delegation set out to find a new leader for their country (see part 1). Trying to find a prince for Bulgaria at that point in time was kind of like trying to find a new car manufacturer for Detroit … if you also had a notarized letter from a Mr. Godzilla declaring STOMP STOMP STOMP. No sane royal wanted to mess up the Tsar’s plans, and in any event, it wasn’t exactly a cushy job to begin with. The country was young, poor, and tangled up in Great Power politics from the get-go. Luckily, somewhere out there was the Michelangelo of turd-polishing: one Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (Stephen Fry).

That a Gotha would somehow get involved wasn’t that surprising, if only by virtue of their sheer number. In the 19th century, European aristocracy settled on a simple breeding regimen, which went as follows: 1) load an eligible princess into a human cannon, 2) shoot said princess in a random direction, 3) watch as she inevitably lands on a Gotha dick, dusts herself off, unloads a dozen tiny Gothas into a picnic basket and traipses off, sprinkling them merrily all over the continent.

They were simply everywhere. In fact, the current British dynasty are also Gothas, thanks to Queen Victoria’s consort Prince Albert (Google him for some Santorum fun!) but - funny story - the German planes that bombed London during WWI were also called Gotha, so they promptly changed their name to Windsor. Incidentally, the family of Bulgaria’s first ruler, Prince Battenberg, renamed itself to Mountbatten around the same time, to offset the PR fallout of the Battenberg Rape Commandos*.

It’s unclear whether the Bulgarians sought Ferdinand out, or if it was he who approached them, but news of his candidacy was greeted with a cascade of *headdesks* that sent seismic shockwaves throughout Europe. The thing is: Ferdinand wasn’t exactly a statesman. He was reasonably wealthy - coming from a line of Hungarian magnates on his father’s side, and deposed French royalty on his mother’s - but known mostly for being witty to the point of bitchiness, liking flowers, birdies, and dressing up in fancy uniforms. The idea of him ruling a barbaric Balkan country simply did not compute. Bismarck actually thought it was some sort of ploy to restore the French monarchy (which sounds equally random if you know who Bismarck is and why someone might want to do that), while The Spectator decided that it was far more likely that it was all a giant conspiracy cooked up by the Tsar himself to discredit the whole effort.

Yet somehow the match was made, and the courtship moved on to pussyfooting. The Bulgarians wanted a prince ASAP, but Ferdinand operated under the delusion that he could get the Great Powers to approve his candidacy first, so he stalled. Finally, the Bulgarians lost their patience and simply elected him in absentia, and then in a stroke of genius sent him a formal Bulgarian uniform to get his imagination going. The vision of triumphantly entering his own little princedom while looking absolutely fabulous won him over, and he agreed.

Now here’s the thing about international politics: every single thing matters. Great Powers are like teenage girls - every action is some sort of signal that you can spend hours analyzing with your girlfriends. Except most teenage girls don’t have hundreds of thousands of soldiers at their disposal. As we were approaching the 20th century, tensions between the major players were running so high that anything could have sparked a war. And the Balkans were that wobbly Jenga block that everyone avoided because it could - and ultimately would - make the whole thing go down.

So when news of the election broke, everyone froze and looked at Russia. Russia went “Huh?” and when someone repeated - choked on her latte and screamed bloody murder. She did not, however reach for her gun. The Tsar sent a telegram to his ambassador stating that since the Prince was an usurper, actions taken against him would not be prosecuted by Russian law enforcement (in other words: Kill It Dead), but he did not go to war. And so, on September 9, 1887, Prince Ferdinand got on a train and set out to become the illegal ruler of an unrecognized country. Alas, his triumphant entrance would have to wait - he spent most of the trip locked inside the toilet. So no one would murder him.

Unfortunately, this is where the story gets too big for a crappy little essay. If you were to make a movie based on Ferdinand’s reign, you could take it literally anywhere: drama, political thriller, farce, character study - you name it. The main problem is editing it all down and stitching together something cohesive enough to serve as its core - a feat of which I’ve found myself to be incapable. That is why, instead of letting this thing go on for 70 pages, I’ll just do a highlights reel:

First of all, for almost 10 years, Ferdinand was both invisible and untouchable. On one hand his rule was unrecognized by anyone, but on the other - no one dared to do anything about it for fear of setting off a chain reaction. The Prince himself joked that he was living it up “like a flea in a bear’s ear - the place everyone is afraid to scratch.” This meant, among other things, that his state visits to other countries were ridiculously choreographed kabuki productions, as the hosts pandered to the de facto ruler of the region’s pivotal state, while at the same time trying not to outwardly acknowledge his status, or dislocate their eyeballs/elbows from all the winking and nudging. This farce was the hardest on poor Sultan Abdul Hamid II of the Ottoman Empire, who was in the impossible position of being both a powerless figurehead, and Ferdinand’s titular suzerain (Bulgaria was formally a vassal of the Ottoman state). Whenever the Prince stirred something up, the Great Powers would yell at him to do something about it - except Russia threatened to kick his teeth in unless he got rid of Ferdinand, while Austria-Hungary and Great Britain vowed to do the same if he did. The Sultan eventually opted to go full-on schizo, and when the Prince arrived in Bulgaria, he sent an official note declaring his actions to be illegal and demanding that he immediately leave the country… delivered personally by his equally official missive, who added: “…not.”

Secondly, the dude turned out to be a motherfucking genius of politics, playing the Great Powers against each other for almost 20 years. He cultivated the public image of a vain, superficial ponce and actively used it in the diplomatic game to either make someone certain that they bought his favor with a symbolic gesture when in fact he was conspiring with their opponent, or to secure tangible advantages in exchange for a serving of smoke and mirrors. Not only did he hold on to his throne, after 10 years he made all of Europe recognize him as the rightful ruler of Bulgaria, then raised himself to the rank of Tsar (making his realm a kingdom), and finally within 6 months tricked everyone into recognizing that title as well. At the same time, he played arbiter to his country’s parliament and essentially did as he pleased, despite being merely a constitutional monarch.

Then there was the gayness. Quite a lot of it, too. He was a frequent visitor to Capri - the gay hotspot of that era - and was prone to breaking people’s brains with remarks like “Whenever I feel sad, I just have to look at some violets, and everything seems better”. To that end, he had the baptismal font in Sofia’s main church filled with said flowers - in case God bummed him out, I guess. He even managed to gay up negotiations in the run-up to the First World War. As he expertly swiveled between the two major blocs, both of them took care to include in their delegations a strapping blond chauffeur who could take the Prince out for a drive in the woods between all these tiresome talks of war and death.

There was also his mother, Princess Clementine Bourbon-Orleans. Very loving, very ambitious, and very rich (think Jackie Florick from The Good Wife, but with crazy money). One of Clementine’s side projects was Extreme Makeover: Bulgaria. She basically built hospitals, orphanages, and for his son’s birthday, she bought him a railway line connecting Bulgaria to the rest of Europe. Seriously.

Or maybe you want more slapstick? Happy to oblige. Occasionally Ferdinand would clash with other drama queens, but nothing could compare to his interactions with the German Kaiser Wilhelm I - himself a formidable buffoon - who would make fun of Ferdinand’s nose and just be overbearingly jovial in general. The fun part of having such a combo at the top level? When Skippy gives Bonzo a wedgie, they sulk for a week. When Kaiser Wilhelm slapped Ferdinand’s ass as he was leaning out of a window in Potsdam - the contract for equipping the entire Bulgarian army went from Germany to France.

So pick and choose, mix and match - just make sure it somehow fits in tonally with the ending, which takes a rather sharp turn for the poignant. As the First World War approached, various elements were being locked in place, and Ferdinand started running out of room for his diplomatic dance. Before he made his final choice between the Entente and the Central Powers, he got together with the other teenage Balkan states to form the Balkan League and finally put the Sick Man of Europe out of his misery. In October 1912, they jointly attacked the Ottoman Empire. The Bulgarian army immediately scored several spectacular victories, and pushed almost all the way to Constantinople, its advance halted mere 25 miles from the capital. At which point Ferdinand’s nature got the better of him.

Now … Remember all those crusades Catholics went on in the Middle Ages, trying to capture Jerusalem? For Orthodox Christians, it’s kind of the same with Constantinople — except before the Ottoman Empire started falling apart, there were no nearby Orthodox states around to attempt it. Hell, Russia was half a continent away, and still she tried to get her hands on it for hundreds of years. In short: Constantinople was crack. So when Ferdinand saw that he was so close to capturing it and claiming the Byzantine mantle … he kind of lost it. Ignoring his country’s war objectives (mostly Macedonia), he focused on making that final push towards the City of Man’s Desire. Meanwhile, the other Balkan states were securing the rest of Ottoman territory for themselves and - already upset by Bulgaria’s early successes and potential capture of Constantinople - signing secret treaties. By the time Ferdinand came to his senses, it was too late. His army was decimated by disease, and his former allies were getting ready to attack him as soon as the current war was over. In a desperate effort to preempt them, in June 1913 he attacked Serbian and Greek forces in Macedonia. The 2nd Balkan War lasted a month and pitted Ferdinand against everyone and their little dogs, too (Greece, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, and the Ottoman Empire - and yes, the little dog is Montenegro). It left Bulgaria truncated, isolated, and immobile - with most of her new enemies sitting well within the Entente camp, she had no choice but to join the Central Powers, soon to be known as the Losing Side.

World War I wasn’t kind to most crowned heads, but it literally shattered the Central Monarchies, overthrowing Kaisers, Emperors and Sultans alike. When the dust settled, only one throne was left standing - preserved by divine providence, its occupant’s iron grasp, or a little bit of both. And on 3rd of October 1918, it welcomed Tsar Boris III of Bulgaria. Son of Ferdinand.

* Totally not true. They did change their name though.

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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.