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Great Contemporaries: Peter and Alexandra
In July 1943, when King Peter II of Yugoslavia (aged 20) wanted to marry Princess Alexandra of Greece, Churchill defended the marriage but the Foreign Office had a problem with it. (Richard Langworth, Churchill in His Own Words, 183). Why? On what grounds? —R.A., Chicago
Peter II of Yugoslavia (1923–70) succeeded to the throne in 1934, but the country was ruled by a regent, Prince Paul. When Paul proclaimed in March 1941 that Yugoslavia would join the Axis, Peter with British support participated in a coup. Germany (postponing its attack on Russia) responded by invading Yugoslavia, and Peter fled.
Peter’s coup attempt forced Hitler to postpone his invasion of the Soviet Union. The German army arrived at the outskirts of Moscow later than intended, hampered by the onset of the Russian winter, providing more time for a Soviet counter-attack.
Peter was in Britain when the marriage issue arose in 1943. The Foreign Office cited a principle, which they said was Serbian, that royals do not marry in wartime. Churchill, ever the romantic monarchist, thought this silly, but he also saw practical advantages to keeping Peter happy.
Churchill gave his views in lighthearted style to Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden on 11 July 1943, but only part of his message is reproduced in his memoirs (The Second World War, V 571-72). The complete message, including more pointed remarks to Eden, is in The Churchill Documents vol. 18, 1871, from which we quote excerpts:
- The whole tradition of military Europe has been in favour of ‘les noces de guerre’ and nothing could be more natural and nothing could be more becoming than that a young king should marry a highly suitable princess on the eve of his departure for the war. Thus he has a chance of perpetuating his dynasty and anyhow giving effect to those primary instincts to which the humblest of human beings have a right.
- Against this we have some tale, which I disbelieve of a martial race, that the Serb principle is no one must get married in wartime….Some are in favour of the marriage, some are not. The King and the Princess are strongly in favour of it and in my view in this tangle they are the only ones whose opinions should weigh with us.
- The Foreign Office should discard these 18th century politics….if the King is worthy of his hazardous throne, we may leave the rest to him.
- I may add that I am prepared to go into action in the House of Commons or on any democratic platform in Great Britain or the United States on the principles set forth above….We might be back in the refinements of Louis XIV instead of the lusty squalor of the 20th century.
- Please do not complicate the problem by dragging the defects, if any, of his mother-in-law into it. [Aspasia Manos secretly married King Alexander of Greece in 1919.]
- Are not we fighting this war for liberty and democracy? My advice to the King if you force him on me will be to go to the nearest Registry Office and take a chance. So what?
Churchill was clearly making light of the situation, to which Eden did not take kindly—as Hillsdale’s Document Volume 18 discloses with Churchill’s 12 July follow-up (page 1882). Here he apologized, but continued to stand on principle:
I am sorry you should have been offended by my jocular minute about King Peter’s marriage. It is quite true that I was indulging in a somewhat free and easy style of correspondence, and the Americanism at the end was included in this sense. I will be more careful in future in matters of form.
I could not however deny myself the right to take a view about these matters….Sentimental considerations apart, a union between the Yugoslav and Greek Royal Houses is by no means unfavourable to British interests in the Balkans.
This incident is reminiscent of Churchill’s staunch defense of King Edward VIII’s marriage plans during the British Abdication Crisis of 1936, although in this case Churchill won: Peter and Alexandra did marry in 1944, but he was deposed by Tito’s Communist assembly in 1945. He emigrated to the United States, and was the only foreign monarch buried on U.S. soil until his remains were repatriated to Belgrade by the Serbian government in 2013.