In 1941, His Majesty King Peter II of Yugoslavia had to leave his kingdom, when Nazi Germany invaded; this was the start of 50 years of exile for the Serbian Royal Family. King Peter died in 1970 and never had the chance to return to Serbia. His only child, Crown Prince Alexander, returned to Serbia in 1991, and since 2001, the Crown Prince and his family have been living in the Royal Palace in Belgrade. Today, Crown Prince Alexander and his wife, Crown Princess Katherine are the very symbol of a stable Serbia and the living hope that Serbia will once again become a democratic constitutional monarchy.
I had the honour of meeting them both in the Blue Salon in the Royal Palace to speak with them about the past, present, and future. Crown Prince Alexander and Crown Princess Katherine spoke openly about their past in exile, the way back to Serbia and the possible future where Serbia becomes a monarchy once again. His Royal Highness also spoke candidly about the untrue rumours of his father’s escape from Serbia and what he described as “fake news.” Their Royal Highnesses both spoke openly and warmly about their royal colleagues in Britain, Norway and Sweden.
Oskar Aanmoen: His Royal Highness was born in London in 1945. After what I have heard, this is an extraordinary story. Can the Crown Prince, in his own words, tell us what happened during his birth in London in 1945?
Crown Prince Alexander: Well, I was born in Claridge’s Hotel, by plan, and the suite was turned into Yugoslav territory, which was a very nice gesture by then Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
What an extraordinary story.
Unusual, yes, but it did happen with the Dutch Royal Family in Ottawa, also.
After your father, King Peter, died in 1970, you declined to claim the title of King. Why?
I never declined it. I said I have the rights to it, but to use the name of King would be very strange at the time. It was the height of the communist state. So all I said was, I have my rights, I am not giving up anything, full stop.
When you were in exile, did you think that you ever could return to Serbia?
Not really, because I thought it would be a communist state and the Soviet Union forever. In 1970, it was a tough time. And also the 1980s, but things started happening. Of course, you remember the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Then I thought differently, that there might be a chance, but sadly, the course took a very dangerous one, and that was the wars of succession in the former Yugoslavia, which was done by nationalists, or should we say leaders of each country using negative religion and negative nationalism.
When you finally returned to Serbia. How was it to come home?
Extremely emotional. We first came here in 1991. The opposition against the regime was united, and they asked us to come to support their effort against the regime. We accepted, and this was my first time on Yugoslav territory, arriving in Belgrade. I was with my wife and the three children, and we spent three days here. It was very emotional arriving here. We were met by hundreds of thousands of people. And then I didn’t come back until my uncle was very ill. He was living here, and again we came here and saw the disaster that was going on, the tragedy of the war, the ethnic cleansing and all these horrible things. I thought I ‘ve really got to work harder for this.
So I met the democratic opposition, and I became friends with who became the future prime minister, Mr Zoran Đinđić. And then I implemented, after the bombing here, which was criminal, I implemented meetings, conferences in Budapest, in Bosnia, Athens, and the last one was organised by Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. All to unite the democratic opposition against the regime then. And this was successful, and the regime cancelled elections that took place in September 2000 that the opposition won. And everybody went on the streets on the 5th of October 2000, and the regime collapsed. And five days afterwards, the Prime Minister calls me up to come back and says, “Thank you very much; we are waiting for you.” So that is why we are back.
His Royal Highness has naturally met many of Europe’s royals at dinners and weddings. Your Royal Highness naturally has a special relationship with the British Royal Family, in that Queen Elizabeth is your godmother. Can the Crown Prince tell us a bit more about his relationship with the British Royal Family and especially Her Majesty The Queen?
Well, it has always been very good. Her father, King George VI, was my godfather. Her Majesty has been very good to me. We occasionally meet at Buckingham Palace, or we meet at Windsor Castle. It is a very nice time to talk with her. She is extremely knowledgeable and deeply respected. I was also at school with Prince Charles at Gordonstoun in Scotland, and we are very happy that he came to visit us here. It was a great occasion. So the relations with the British Royal Family is very, very nice but also with all the other royal families. We seem to be interrelated.
As a Norwegian, it is also natural for me to ask about the Crown Prince’s relationship with the Norwegian Royal Family. What do you think about them?
We are very friendly with them. We are very friendly with Their Majesties and the Crown Prince and Crown Princess. They are a wonderful royal family. We admire them very much and their work. Also, a sad story, I did go to King Olav’s funeral, and that was a very moving, moving situation. I had great admiration for him.
And then a bit about Serbian politics today and the possible restoration of the monarchy.
After the fall of communism here in Serbia, we have seen significant support for the restoration of the monarchy, with you as the monarch, and in 2008, “The Kingdom of Serbia Association” was created by Serbian students. The fact that Your Royal Highness and the Serbian Royal Family have such great support from particular young Serbians – the future generation. What does this say about the future of the Serbian monarchy?
Well, there is great interest; there is no doubt about it. My wife and I travel all over Serbia, and we are received extremely well by all the municipalities no matter what political party they are associated with. We also deliver equipment to all the hospitals and health centres. This is my wife’s foundation, and she will explain you more.
And we notice a tremendous feeling for the history of our country. We were always a monarchy. This year we will be celebrating 800 years of monarchy. My father never abdicated in 1945. The Kingdom [of Serbia] was stolen from him on the 29th of November 1945.
These young people that you just mentioned are very fine young people, and they have offices throughout Serbia. They are an association that explains what constitutional monarchy is. The objective is a constitutional monarchy, not an absolute monarchy. We respect everyone, regardless of religion, ethnic origins and political persuasion provided they believe in the democratic process.
This government, which is just formed yesterday, my wife and I were in the parliament for the swearing in, and the Speaker of the House fully respected our presence. So this is positive, but there are a lot of things that happened here during the dictatorship years. For example, whenever there was a scandal within the communists, they pointed out that my father left the country with a trainload of gold. This never happened, and it has been proven. So there still are some people who believe in this. And nowadays, we work very much with the internet, and you have newspapers that publish articles, and they are very good. And you have the freedom of people to make comments, which is also very good. But we have noted that they are a few people who make extraordinary comments which are total lies what I supposed they call in America now, ‘fake news.’
The restoration of the monarchy is supported by many Serbian parliamentarians and some political parties. Why has a referendum not been held on this issue when the people want you as their King?
Well, as I mention, my father never abdicated. So why have a referendum? The answer is to have a constitutional assembly which consists of various political parties who meet together in the parliamentarian situation and discuss how to move forward. You noted how referendums have failed. I give you an example; Greece was a tragedy, where it failed dramatically.
I am not there to talk about politics over the television, the radio or the written media. It is the parties who should discuss politics and the meeting point for unity and continuity is the King who does not take sides. So I cannot be a part of the debate. I am not looking for political office.
Do you think you will ever be crowned King of Serbia?
That depends upon the people and God.
Oskar Aanmoen: How was it for the Crown Princess to marry into a royal family that was in exile?
Crown Princess Katherine: It has given me an opportunity to give my support to my husband and the family. I believe that monarchy is a unifying factor, and I am very proud of my husband who has become the symbol of unity, stability and continuity. I believe that monarchy, in this age we live in, is the most important thing this world could have because they are neutral. They are there for the people, and they put people first, and that is what is missing nowadays in the world we live in.
How was it for the Crown Princess to come to Serbia in 1991?
It was an incredible feeling. When I met my husband, he looked at me with tears in his eyes, and he said, “I have never been home, and my wish is to be home. And I have promised my father, who was the only King buried in America, to be brought home. And I promised to bring him home when I have never been there myself.” So I am very happy and feel very touched, and I appreciate my husband’s efforts. We are not here because he is the son of King Peter. We are here because he has brought democracy to our country.
Monarchy is not what it used to be. You have to earn that opportunity. You might have it by inheritance, but you have to be able to make a difference in the life of the people. And that is wat we are here for – to give them a better life and a chance to feel secure, happy and content and proud of our country like we are.
The Crown Princess has notably worked to improve conditions for ill children here in Serbia. The Crown Princess has also founded an organisation that works towards this. Can the Crown Princess tell us why she started this organisation?
I am very happy that I have this opportunity. I had parents that taught me the joy of giving, not the joy of taking. And they didn’t just tell me; they lived their life by giving. My father was one of the biggest philanthropists in Greece, and I am very proud of what I learnt from my parents. They prepared me for my role without knowing what my future would be. I was very young, and when you learn the joy of giving when you are young, you never forget it. I prayed to God for an opportunity to give of myself since that is happiness, and God gave me Alexander and a whole country. So when you pray, you have to make sure that is what you want.
The Crown Princess is also a patron of the American organisation “Lifeline,” which works to help Serbians. Tell us a bit more about this organisation and why you wanted to be a patron of it.
We came to Serbia in 1991, and the first medical equipment we gave to the children’s hospital here in Belgrade was 25 years ago. The joy I felt, seeing all those doctors and nurses being thrilled with being given equipment, made me feel that this is just the beginning. This is just the crowning of an opportunity. Why don’t I do more? So in 1993, I opened my first office in Chicago. Then we went on to New York, Toronto in Canada, London, Athens in Greece and Belgrade when we came here. And for me, this is an incredible effort to try to help. This is my biggest month in all these years, 1,700,000 US dollars of medical equipment, four sterilisers and one mammography machine, which is very much needed because of the situation we have here with breast cancer – the highest in Europe.
How has the Crown Princess been welcomed by the other royal families of Europe?
Well, we are close with the families, and we need the closeness, all of us. Because this role is a great role that gives so much satisfaction by giving so much of yourself and the way people respect it and love it and love you. When you are with the royal families around the world, you feel relaxed. You all live similar lives, and also the trust is there, the love is there. And my husband, being an only child, not having his country to grow up in, having parents in exile, family for him, meant only more to him because the royal families were the ones who took care of him, looked after him, like the Greek Royal Family in Greece, with his grandfather being King of Greece and his relationship with the family in Greece. It was wonderful; he spent several summers with them. But generally, all the families around Europe are really great, and we admire each and every one of them. Sweden, we are very close to Sweden and of course Norway and all the other royal families. The British, of course, my husband’s godmother [The Queen] and King George, his godfather. So we have an incredible respect and admiration for them and, of course, His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, his wife and the children. They are really wonderful. We are very, very happy to be a part of this family who is doing so much good, each one of them, in their own countries.
The meeting with the Crown Prince and Crown Princess was delightful. They can best be described as two warm and friendly people who have a huge passion for their nation, despite being described as enemies of the state less than 30 years ago. Their work has given hope and joy to so many of the Serbian people. Their tireless efforts for the people of Serbia exemplifies the benefits of a monarchy as well as the fact that the age of the monarchy is not yet over.