Yugoslavia was in a tenuous geopolitical situation in the 1930’s. Foes, both foreign and domestic wanted to end the reign of King Peter I. The enemies of Yugoslavia knew that if the King could be murdered, it would result in a power vacuum at the top. The heir apparent was Alexander’s eleven year old son, Peter. This did not bode well for Yugoslavia keeping the Italians, Hungarians, Croatians, and Bulgarians at bay. The greatest threat to Alexander’s life occurred anytime he appeared in public. While he took the necessary precautions, Alexander was probably less worried about his autumn trip to France than he would have been at home. Nevertheless, trusting his security to the French state would prove to be a fatal mistake.
Sinister Calling – A Man Of Action
Vlado Chemozemski was a political fanatic, professional revolutionary, and accomplished assassin, not exactly in that order. He was also a man of many aliases, one of which was the nom de guerre, Vlado the Chauffeur. He received this alias as the driver for one of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization’s (IMRO) leaders. During his teenage and early adulthood years, Chemozemski had a wide range of jobs in an early attempt to find a career. These included service in the Bulgarian Army during World War I, watchmaking and offering his services as a chauffeur. He fell in with his true, more sinister calling, when he joined up with the IMRO during the early 1920’s. He was a man of action, carrying out political murders in the name of the Macedonian independence movement. For these crimes, Chemozemski was twice sentenced to death. While those sentences were never carried out, he did spend time in prison.
After release, Chemozemski found his way to Italy. This was where he became involved with the Ustase, the far right Croatian fascist group that actively worked to topple the Yugoslav government. Chemozemski impressed the Ustase with his zeal. He was more than glad to do the dirty work. If that included murder, then so be it. Chemozemski was good enough at his craft to be given a role as an instructor by the Ustase. He was transferred to one of their training camps in southern Hungary. It was here that Chemozemski began to train three Ustase members on how to assassinate King Alexander I. The men traveled to France in late September, then split off into two groups. Chemozemski and one of his subjects made their way to Marseille where they awaited the arrival of King Alexander. The other pair headed to Versailles, where they would carry out a second assassination attempt if the first one failed. No one in Marseilles suspected that there were two assassins in the city and they certainly had no idea of what was about to occur.
Festive To Furious – Shooting To Kill
On October 9, 1934, a Yugoslav Royal Navy destroyer arrived in the harbor at Marseille. On board was King Alexander. There to greet him was the French Foreign Minister, Louis Barthou. After exchanging greetings, the two men got into an automobile. The back seat in which they sat together was open, exposing them to the crowds. They then began to make their way through the streets of Marseille where a curious French public lined the sidewalks. The vehicle soon turned onto the Canbiere, the city’s famed high street which has often been referred to as Marseille’s Champs Elysses. While the curious crowd looked on, King Alexander and Foreign Minister Barthou enjoyed the warm welcome. The atmosphere was festive with the crowd cheering and waving at the two men as they rode past.
This was just the kind of greeting Barthou had in mind for an ally. Everything was going according to plan when suddenly a man came out of the crowd, ran up to the vehicle, jumped onto the running board and pulled out a Mauser pistol. He then proceeded to shoot King Alexander and the driver. Barthou was also wounded. The crowd watched this horrific scene unfold in a matter of seconds. They went from festive to furious. Before the assassin could make his getaway, a nearby officer slashed him with a saber. Then the crowd fell upon the man and attacked him mercilessly. The police stood by and watched the crowd have their way with the assassin. At the same time, the vehicle in which the King had been traveling had stopped. The chauffeur was dead, but his foot was pressed against the brake pedal. This allowed those filming the procession to capture the scene on film.
The King was already near death and Barthou was losing blood from his wound. Their situations were irreparable. While the dignitaries were rushed to the nearest hospital, the assassin was nearly unconscious from the brutal beating inflicted on him by the crowd. There were also members of the crowd who had suffered wounds. The scene was one of chaos. The celebratory atmosphere had vanished. Another monarch from the Balkans was dead. Before he did, the police tried to interrogate the assassin. His identity was a mystery. If not for a Yugoslav journalist who noted the assassin’s skull and cross bones tattoo with the letters VMRO, the assassin may never have been identified. Only later would his fingerprints be sent to Sofia, where the Bulgarian authorities would confirm that the assassin was none other Vlado Chernozemski.
Missing Links – One Step Closer To War
The assassination’s aftermath was almost as unseemly as the act itself. The other three accomplices of Chernozemski were arrested in the days to come. While Chernozemski was a Bulgarian, the other three were Croatians. The latter were given life sentences. They would only serve a portion of their sentences before the Nazi occupational authorities in the early 1940’s released them from confinement. It would later be discovered that the wound Barthou sustained had come from the gun of a French police officer. Random bullets from officers also struck and killed five bystanders. There was an international outcry as more details of the assassination became known. The Hungarians, who had allowed Chernozemski and his accomplices to train on their soil, were among those blamed. As was the Croatian Ustase. Though never proven, many believed the Italians were also involved. The murder of King Alexander played into their hands.
Yugoslavia was weakened by the loss of Alexander, who only five years earlier had suspended the constitution and began to rule in a dictatorial manner. He could strongarm politicians to do his bidding. That strategy was now defunct. Predictably, the alliance with France was shattered by the assassination. King Alexander’s son, Peter II would be crowned king. Because he was not even a teenager yet, his uncle Paul would act as regent. Neither could ever really replace King Alexander. The ramifications of his death reverberated across Europe. The assassination brought Europe one step closer to war. Much of the incident had been captured on film and disseminated for the world to see. It offered chilling evidence of a political murder and its immediate aftermath. The film was about to become as famous as the assassination.
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