Monday, February 26, 2018

Born Today In 1861: Bulgarian Ruler Ferdinand I

Ferdinand I was born today, February 26, in 1861. He was born Ferdinand Maximilian Karl Leopold Maria of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and was the ruler of Bulgaria from 1887 to 1918; firstly as knyaz (ruling prince, 1887–1908) and later as tsar (king, 1908–18). He was also an author, botanist, entomologist and stamp collector.

Though he married twice, in his private relations, Ferdinand was a somewhat hedonistic individual. Bisexual throughout his life, up until early middle age his inclination was more toward women. He enjoyed affairs with a number of women of humble position, siring a number of illegitimate children whom he then supported financially.

In his later life, rumors abounded of Ferdinand's trysts with lieutenants and valets. His regular holidays on Capri, then a popular holiday destination with wealthy gay men, were common knowledge in royal courts throughout Europe. In 1895 an interview given by the embittered former Prime Minister, Stefan Stambolov to the Frankfurter Zeitung created a 9-day scandal across Europe, when he focused strongly on his personal witness of Ferdinand’s homosexual interests.

Ferdinand was born in Vienna, a German prince of the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha-Koháry. He grew up in the cosmopolitan environment of Austro-Hungarian high nobility and also in their ancestral lands in Hungary and in Germany. 

The first Prince of the Third Bulgarian State, Alexander of Battenberg, abdicated in 1886 after a pro-Russian coup, only 7 years after he had been elected. Ferdinand, who was an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army was elected Prince of autonomous Bulgaria by its Grand National Assembly in July 1887. In desperate attempts to prevent Russian occupation of Bulgaria, the throne had been previously offered, before Ferdinand's acceptance, to princes from Denmark to the Caucasus and even to the King of Romania. Ferdinand's accession was greeted with disbelief in many of the royal houses of Europe. Queen Victoria, his father's first cousin, stated to her Prime Minister, "He is totally unfit ... delicate, eccentric and effeminate ... Should be stopped at once." To the amazement of his initial detractors, Ferdinand generally made a success during the first two decades of his reign.

Bulgaria's domestic political life was dominated during the early years of Ferdinand's reign by liberal party leader Stefan Stambolov, whose foreign policy saw a marked cooling in relations with Russia, formerly seen as Bulgaria's protector.

Stambolov's fall (May 1894) and subsequent assassination (July 1895) paved the way for a reconciliation of Bulgaria with Russia, effected in February 1896 with the conversion of the infant Prince Boris from Roman Catholicism to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. However, this move earned him the animosity of his Catholic Austrian relatives, particularly that of his uncle, Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria.

On October 5, 1908, Ferdinand proclaimed Bulgaria's de jure independence from the Ottoman Empire (though the country had been de facto independent since 1878). He also proclaimed Bulgaria a kingdom, and assumed the title of tsar— a deliberate nod to the rulers of the earlier Bulgarian states. The Bulgarian Declaration of Independence was proclaimed by him at the Holy Forty Martyrs Church in Tarnovo. It was accepted by Turkey and the other European powers.

Ferdinand was known for being quite a character. On a visit to German Emperor Wilhelm II, his second cousin once removed, in 1909, Ferdinand was leaning out of a window of the New Palace in Potsdam when the Emperor came up behind him and slapped him on the bottom. Ferdinand was affronted by the gesture but the Kaiser arrogantly refused to apologize. Ferdinand however exacted his revenge by awarding a valuable arms contract he had intended to give to the Krupp's factory in Essen to a French arms manufacturer. On July 10, 1910, during a visit to Belgium, Ferdinand became the first head of state to fly in an airplane.

Like many other rulers before him, Ferdinand desired the creation of a "new Byzantium". In 1912, Ferdinand joined the other Balkan states in an assault on the Ottoman Empire to free occupied territories. He saw this war as a new crusade declaring it, "a just, great and sacred struggle of the Cross against the Crescent." Bulgaria contributed the most and also lost the greatest number of soldiers. The great powers insisted on the creation of an independent Albania. Though the Balkan allies had fought together against the common enemy, that was not enough to overcome their mutual rivalries. In the original document for the Balkans league, Serbia and Greece had been pressured by Bulgaria to hand over most of Macedonia after they had freed it from Turkish rule. However Serbia and Greece, responding to popular protest, said that they would keep possession of the territories that their forces had occupied. Soon after, Bulgaria invaded its recent allies Serbia and Greece to seize this territory before being attacked itself by Romania and the Ottoman Empire. Although Bulgaria was defeated, the 1913 Treaty of Bucharest granted the Kingdom some territorial gains. A tiny area of land giving access to the Aegean Sea was secured.

On October 11, 1915, the Bulgarian army attacked Serbia after signing a treaty with Austria-Hungary and Germany stating that Bulgaria would gain the territory it sought at the expense of Serbia. Ferdinand was not an admirer of German Emperor Wilhelm II (his second cousin once removed) or Austrian Emperor Franz Josef I whom he described as "that idiot, that old dotard of a Francis Joseph." However, Ferdinand wanted additional territorial gains after the humiliation of the Balkan Wars. This also entailed forming an alliance with his former enemy, the Ottoman Empire.

During the initial phase of World War I, the Kingdom of Bulgaria achieved several decisive victories over its enemies and laid claim to the disputed territories of Macedonia after Serbia's defeat. For the next 2 years, the Bulgarian army shifted its focus toward repelling Allied advances from nearby Greece. They were also partially involved in the 1916 conquest of neighboring Romania, now ruled by another Ferdinand I, who was also Ferdinand's second cousin once removed.

To save the Bulgarian throne, Tsar Ferdinand abdicated in favor of his eldest son, who became Tsar Boris III on October 3, 1918. Under new leadership, Bulgaria surrendered to the Allies and, as a consequence, lost not only the additional territory it had fought for in the major conflict, but also the territory it had won after the Balkan Wars giving access to the Aegean Sea.

Ferdinand entered a marriage of convenience with Princess Marie Louise of Bourbon-Parma in 1893. The marriage produced four children.

Marie Louise died in 1899 after giving birth to her youngest daughter. Ferdinand did not think again about marriage until his mother, Princess Clémentine died in 1907. To satisfy dynastic obligations and to provide his children with a mother figure, Ferdinand married Eleonore Reuss of Köstritz in 1908. Neither romantic love or physical attraction played any role, and Ferdinand treated her as no more than a member of the household, and showed scant regard.

After his abdication, Ferdinand returned to live in Coburg, Germany. He had managed to salvage much of his fortune and was able to live in some style. He saw his being in exile simply as one of the hazards of kingship. He was pleased that the throne could pass to his son. Ferdinand was not displeased with exile and spent much of his time devoted to artistic endeavors, gardening, travel and natural history.

However, he would live to see the collapse of everything he had held to be precious in life. His eldest son and successor, Boris III, died under mysterious circumstances after returning from a visit to Hitler in Germany in 1943. Boris III's son, Simeon II, succeeded him only to be deposed in 1946, ending the Bulgarian monarchy. The Kingdom of Bulgaria was succeeded by the People's Republic of Bulgaria, under which Ferdinand's other son, Kyril, was executed. On hearing of Kyril's death he said, "Everything is collapsing around me."

Ferdinand died a broken man in Bürglass-Schlösschen on September 10, 1948, in Coburg, Germany, cradle of the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha dynasty. He was the last surviving grandchild of Louis-Philippe of France. His final wish was to be buried in Bulgaria, and for this reason his coffin was temporarily placed in the crypt of St. Augustin, Coburg, next to his parents' coffins.

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