Thursday, September 29, 2022

May 20, 1910 - Nine Kings Perish Waiting for a Photograph

 As the royals of Europe gathered in Britain for the funeral of Edward VII, it was seen as an opportunity to capture history in a photograph of nine kings all together. Arranged in a room in Windsor Castle were Haakon VII of Norway, Ferdinand of Bulgaria, Manuel II of Portugal, Wilhelm II of Germany, George I of Greece, Albert I of Belgium, Alfonso XIII of Spain, George V of Britain, and Frederick VIII of Denmark. 

Something went terribly wrong, however, when an explosion tore through the room, killing everyone inside. The mystery has never been fully solved, although the dominant theory then and today is that anarchists sabotaged the photo by sneaking gunpowder in with the camera equipment. Conspiracy theories argue that it was the work of an agent who had been planted among the staff, waiting years for the prime moment to strike. Some others hold it was an assassination aimed at Manuel II that claimed wide collateral damage. Still others suspect it may have all been a terrible accident such as a gas leak set off by a sparking bulb. They argue that if anarchists were to strike, the procession would’ve been one with even more targets, including Crown Prince Alexander of Serbia and Archduke Ferdinand of Austria.

The tragedy, taking place only two weeks after the death of Edward VII, rocked Europe. Much of the public reaction was pro-royal, causing a social suppression of anarchist ideals. The Eighth Congress of the Second International socialist organization, which had been planned to take place in Copenhagen, had to be rescheduled to Mexico. Numerous counterculture and economic revolutionaries would flee Europe over the next years to South and Central America, where they would influence social structure for generations to come.

Each nation of course had its own individual effects from the deaths.

Britain faced a change of its monarch within weeks of its last, bringing Edward VIII to the throne just a month before his sixteenth birthday. As he was not yet of age, Queen Mary served as regent, following the decision of the Regency Act 1910. Meanwhile, Parliament struggled with constitutional questions as the unelected House of Lords vetoed the more Liberal attempts of the rest of the government. Issues of budget and especially home rule for Ireland challenged the Conservatives and Unionists, who maintained power after the regicide on the wave of support for tradition with the turbulent times. Edward VIII came of age with these ideals, adding his youthful flair to them in a spirit that mirrored Italy’s Victor Emmanuel III’s encouragement of fascism during its rise there in the 1920s. Edward was divisive, often even seen as contradictory, in his backing of Ireland as a dominion while striking harshly against republicans rebelling against the Oath of Allegiance, treating them with a ferocity “not seen since Oliver Cromwell.” Reigning until his death in 1972, he was a bastion of British tradition that, after the World War, led to the counterculture backlash and crackdown famous as the “Swinging Sixties” due to the spike of violent executions.

Norway faced a much longer regency than Britain since their prince was only six years old. Haakon VII had come onto the throne only five years earlier, accepting the offer to become king following the dissolution of the union of Sweden and Norway in 1905. Originally Carl, Haakon had changed his name to suit his people, and he had similarly changed his son Alexander’s name to Olav. Ever mindful of earning his place, Olav V actually extended his regency until 1924 so that he could complete his military education. Despite his reign being peaceful, he always considered himself a guardian of the nation and participated in routine military games. In addition to his service, he was an avid sportsman, even winning a gold medal in sailing during the 1928 Olympics.

Bulgaria, like Norway, had a relatively new monarchy. The Bulgarian empire had dominated for 800 years starting in AD 600, but it wasn’t until 1879 that Alexander I was reestablished as prince with an election in the provisional government founded by the Russians in the Russo-Turkish War. In 1908, Bulgaria became officially independent with Ferdinand I as their Tsar. Bulgaria developed rapidly from an underdeveloped agrarian frontier into a nation of towns and transport largely from the land-owning small farmers whose Agrarian Union pushed for education and modernization. With thousands of ethnic Bulgarians still outside of the borders, Bulgaria sought to expand militarily, earning the nickname “the Balkan Prussia.” Following the death of Ferdinand in Britain, his oldest son, Boris III, came to rule at sixteen years old. He leaned heavily on the advice of Prime Minister Ivan Geshov, who, like Boris, was a moderate who preferred diplomacy to outright war. While the Ottoman Empire faced war with Italy in Libya, however, the timing was too good for peace, and the Balkan League of Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Montenegro formed in 1912 to drive Ottoman rule out of its European territories. Their overall goal was met with a swift victory, but the nations were displeased with the new borders and the formation of Albania at the insistence of the Great Powers. Many Bulgarian leaders called for war with Serbia to seize expected land, but Boris was slow to start a war that would not be an obvious victory, especially one with former allies.

News of Prince Alexander of Serbia slapping a girl for calling herself “Bulgarian” while he toured liberated Skopje further soured relations between the peoples. Boris bought time until the inevitable war between Serbia and Austria-Hungary over annexed Bosnia. Bulgarian forces liberated Macedonia and pushed the border westward to grab lands populated by Bulgarians. After the settlement in the Treaty of Berlin, Bulgaria returned to its economic growth. Today Bulgaria is well known as a powerhouse of manufacturing, although it is also infamous for its ill treatment of minorities, especially Jewish people.

The kings of Norway and Bulgaria may have been new, but Olav’s grandfather Frederick VIII of Denmark was nearly 70 at the time of the explosion. He was well established, the “Father-in-law of Europe” due to the many marriages of his daughters to other royal houses. Christian X established himself as an authoritarian, sparking the Easter Crisis of 1920 when he dismissed the elected cabinet. Threats of general strike brought him to tighten his fist on social democrats, igniting the short Danish Civil War in which numerous leaders were deported. His son Frederick IX continued the royals’ tight hold on Denmark society, which is often seen from outsiders as one of the most restrictive in Europe today.

Nearly as old as Frederick VIII, the loss of Greece’s George I meant the end of Europe’s longest reigning monarch just short of his golden jubilee. His son Constantine I came to throne at age 42, quickly seizing popularity and regaining his lost honor from defeat in the Greco-Turkish War of 1897 by leading the Greek forces in the march on Thessaloniki in the war alongside the Balkan League allies in 1912. Constantine waited for a Bulgarian attack that never came thanks to the patience of Boris III of Bulgaria. He battled for neutrality during the later war sparked in Serbia, which ultimately brought Greece into a strong position with Germany during the peace talks. Instead, Constantine’s next war would be much like his first with another altercation with the Ottomans. This war ended with very little territorial change, and Constantine abdicated in favor of his son, George II, in hopes a new generation could do better than the last. George had been married to Elisabeth of Romania to further strengthen Greece’s position in the Balkans, but the match was an unhappy one. Greece toiled on under George’s cold rule, increasingly right-wing with fear politics driving censorship and arrest for any opposition. His son, Constantine II, continued the heavy-handed rule but with much more patriotic fervor, highlighting Greece’s ancient splendor and advertising it as a tourist destination despite the suffering of the local people.

While the deadly photograph brought many young monarchs to their rule with the early demise of their predecessors, it served as an abrupt end to the life of 21-year-old Manuel II of Portugal. He had come to rule only two years earlier when his father, Carlos I, and older brother, Luis Filipe, were assassinated in the Lisbon Regicide by republicans opening gunfire on the royal carriage. Manuel left his studies at the naval academy and became king, dismissing the controversial prime minister, Joao Franco, and seeking to find some balance between the rival factions within the nation. Upon word of Manuel’s death, the republicans launched the coup that had been planned since 1909 at the Setubal Congress. The new republic proved even more uneven than the monarchy, and Portugal fell into a series of revolutions and dictatorships as its empire disintegrated, scooped up by the growing influence of Germany and Japan. Following decolonization, the nation hit a new stride with a lasting third republic.

Across the border from Portugal as it faced new political experiments, Spain was seeing a generational repeat. Alfonso XIII became king upon his birth in 1886 as his father had died of illness with the queen was three months pregnant. The baby king was pronounced “the happiest and best-loved of all the rulers of the earth,” although the queen’s regency oversaw the decline of the empire, including the loss of Cuba, the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico. Alfonso came of age in 1902 and soon married Victoria Eugenie of Battenberg, daughter of Edward VII of Britain. Upon Alfonso’s death at the photograph, their first child, Alfonso XIV, became king at only three years old. The new baby king suffered hemophilia, causing him to lead a careful and protected life in specially-tailored clothes that padded him from potential injuries. While adventurers sought to rebuild the Spanish empire with conquests in Africa, the regents and then Alfonso himself dampened their attempts to march on Morocco. Instead, Alfonso focused on internal improvements, using his military education to improve transportation and encourage Spanish industry. He passed away in 1938 due to an accident and internal bleeding, and the state funeral in Spain brought royalist fervor to a peak. His brother, Juan III, ascended the throne and continued the efforts of stability with a constitutional monarchy.

Albert I of Belgium had barely begun his rule when it was cut short during the photography disaster. Albert came to the Belgian throne in 1909 after the death of his uncle, Leopold II, whose only son had died only nine years old. He spent almost the entirety of his reign touring the Belgian Congo, which had for 23 years been Leopold’s private colony from which he extracted untold masses of wealth at the cost of native lives. Leopold relinquished the Congo to become a Belgian colony, and Albert’s tour led to a long list of much-needed reforms. Albert’s son would become Leopold III at the same age of nine, beginning an era nicknamed the “eternal regency.” When Leopold came of age, he maintained many of his advisors from his youth, allowing them to do the bulk of government work while he made necessary appearances for the state. During his reign, he toured extensively, preferring adventuring in the Amazon to ruling. When Leopold passed away in 1983 after more than seventy years as king, his son Baudouin was crowned aged 53, though little changed as the bureaucratic machine had already been long established and popular elections won by periodic strikes maintained balanced rule.

Germany mourned the loss of their long-ruling Kaiser, Wilhelm II, who had begun his reign in 1888. He had worked to grow Germany’s colonial holdings with territories in the Pacific and railroads in the Middle East. Germany had leaped to challenge its rival Britain by surpassing their manufacturing output and amassing a large navy. Wilhelm III continued his father’s eager policies, but his first major event would be hosting the peace talks for the Serbian War. The diplomatic success not only won him fame, but it also opened the channels for economic pushes into Russia. With the Russian economy struggling to industrialize and the Romanovs weak rulers from Nicholas II’s detachment, his son Alexander IV’s hemophilia, and Nicholas’s brother Michael II’s unpopularity, Wilhelm used manufactures and banking to “colonize” eastward without military conquest. The rail-driven transportation system overcame differences in the German and Russian track gauges by innovative shipping containers that could be easily hoisted by crane from one arriving train to another already waiting, a strategy that revolutionized German shipping overseas as well. Germany’s continuing eastward push would eventually lead it into the westward advances of the Japanese Empire, friction that would later start the World War fought across three continents.



In reality, the historical photograph was widely published with the novelty of so much royalty in one room together. The moment was peaceful, but tribulation came to Europe with two kings at war with two others within just a few years in World War I. By the end of the century, only five of the crowns would still remain. Check out Rare Historical Photos for synopses of the kings’ actual lives.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Site Meter