Prince Alexander I (1879 - 1886)

Prince Alexander I


FOR FIVE CENTURIES IN SLAVERY, the Bulgarians cherished their memory of the regal images of their medieval rulers. After the liberation, on 6 July 1879, they welcomed their first ruler on the pier of Varna with enthusiasm and hope. Born in Verona in 1857, handsome and stately, the German prince Alexander seemed to personify the people's ideal for a ruler. The young prince was the symbol of Bulgaria's revival. Prince Alexander I accepted the Bulgarian throne not only out of his ambition to become an honored monarch in Europe. The twenty-two-year-old dragoon lieutenant was making plans to turn Bulgaria into a powerful state under his firm control.

No wonder the European aristocrat found the new constitution, adopted by the Constituent Assembly in Turnovo, unacceptable, and its democratic norms objectionable. They were in contrast to his concept of a strong royal power, by which he hoped to consolidate the new state and bring it closer to modern Europe. "With this law, Your Majesty, it will be impossible or at least very hard for you to rule," the lawyer of his father's court warned him. The German aristocrat was unsure whether his recently-liberated subjects were educated enough to distinguish freedom from its abuse and order from disorder.

Prince Alexander I tenaciously sought to have the democratic Turnovo Constitution amended, as it allowed him only very limited power. For this purpose he sought the support of conservatives who, like him, preferred the state to be ruled by an autocrat. However, the politically more stable liberals, who believed in the power of the National Assembly, started to attack him. In this continual conflict the young and inexperienced but daring ruler gradually realized that being at the helm of a newly liberated country was an onerous task. "There is a bomb under my throne!", he once exclaimed in a moment of despair. The government changed ten times during the seven years of his rule. In that dizzying gyration he often made errors, mistaking his wishes for reality.

All this explains his decision to stage a coup on 27 April 1881. "In the past two years I allowed every possible attempt to be made for the construction and the proper development of the state, but unfortunately my hopes were thwarted," reads his proclamation. He suspended the Turnovo Constitution and had himself invested with absolute powers for nearly three years.

Indeed, during that period a number of valuable ideas for Bulgaria's advancement were born and implemented. European standards were applied to the development of administration, the economy, culture and the army. The liberals, however, rightly accused him of defying the will of the people and of underestimating Bulgarians' ability to maintain a free democratic rule, and Prince Alexander was forced to restore the constitution.

He struggled in foreign relations, too. Having come to Bulgaria with the consent of the Great Powers, he was particularly sensitive to the slightest change in the political balance in Europe. He had ascended the throne with the blessing of his relative, the Russian Emperor Alexander II, but his successor Alexander III felt personal contempt for the Bulgarian prince. He demanded to have the small principality submitted to the interests of the mighty Slavic empire. Prince Alexander took the side of the Russophobes who sought independence for the country.

Alexander I realized the significance of the task to restore the country's unity after it had been fragmented at the Berlin Congress in the summer of 1878. He was intelligent enough to foresee the possible consequences of unification both for the state and for himself. He became one of the first champions of Bulgarian national unity. He is credited for the unification of the Principality of Bulgaria and Eastern Rumelia in the autumn of 1885, and For its successful defending through diplomatic negotiations with the Great Powers and by the victory of his young army in the war with Serbia.


The young monarch, however, was not strong enough to get the upper hand in the struggle with as great a power as Russia and with the ambitions of Russia's ardent Bulgarian supporters. On 9 August 1886 he was forced at gunpoint by the Russophiles, to sign a statement of abdication. The attempt of his supporters to restore him to the throne was foiled by the unyielding opposition of Emperor Alexander III. Deeply frustrated, the prince finished his statement of abdication with the words "God help Bulgaria!". His legacy was one of tragic disparity between hopes and reality.