Tsar Ferdinand (1887-1918)

"He was not a stupid man, but he was a monarch too ready to act on his feelings. Beauty was his only ideal. Unreliable. One could not count on him taking the same stand at six o'clock as at two o'clock or four o'clock," a diplomat very close to the second monarch of the Third Bulgarian State recalled. His description is a good starting point for the understanding of the two groups of historians who have been arguing over the life and deeds of Tsar Ferdinand for many decades now.

His supporters and admirers point out that the German prince Ferdinand Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, born on February 26, 1861, had dreamt of the crown since his childhood, which involved a wealthy upbringing and the will to shoulder the burden of power.

When in the summer of 1887 Prince Ferdinand arrived to Vidin, he was apparently full of ambitions to build a powerful state and to lay the foundations of a lasting Coburg dynasty. Second lieutenant in the Austro-Hungarian army, he was elected by the Grand National Assembly as monarch of Bulgaria and ascended the throne, vacated by Prince Alexander I, in a very different situation. The country was in an upsurge, hopes for the future pushing it ahead.

Under Ferdinand, Bulgaria made considerable progress in many spheres: politics, economy, culture and defence. At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, Bulgaria was developing faster than any of its neighbors. Ferdinand's historic merit is that he did not stand in the way of that development, but in many ways encouraged the modernization of the country.

In the beginning, Ferdinand I knew little about Bulgarians' situation and readily learned from Stambolov. The son of Princess Clementine - King Louis Philippe of France's daughter - he displayed remarkable strength of character. With aristocratic upbringing and manners, fluent in several languages, he was a versatile politician and a skilled diplomat when faced with political tensions. In 1908 his nose for diplomacy told him the time had come to declare Bulgaria's independence, changing his prince's crown for that of a tsar.

A number of historians flatly condemn Ferdinand I as a ruler. It is telling that one book about the ruler by Steven Constant, is entitled 'Ferdinand the Fox', referring to his cunning, resourcefulness and, often, perfidy.

Other opponents of the Coburg dynasty denounce his "personal rule" at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century as a violation of the principles of democracy. He actually did not establish an autocracy, but he did have complete control over the army, the foreign ministry and the appointment of cabinet ministers, thus holding the key elements of power in his hands and forcing politicians, diplomats and generals into submission.

"Bulgaria was too small a state for his plans and ambitions. He had always hoped to be a ruler of European magnitude, equal to the Emperor of Russia, the Kaiser of Germany and the Queen of England... It was no confidence that he was aspiring after Constantinople...," writes the historian Ilcho Dimitrov about the range of Ferdinand's ambition. Ferdinand coveted the Byzantine crown. He came to Bulgaria without formal international recognition and had to fight fiercely for his self-assertion, never forgetting his great dream, in pursuit of which he gave up the attainable for the unachievable.

In crucial historical moments Ferdinand's diplomatic patience deserted him. He failed to consult the government or the National Assembly about Bulgaria's entry into the Second Balkan War in the summer of 1913 and the alliance with Germany and Austro-Hungary during World War I. It was his desire for fame that fuelled his overinflated self-confidence and resulted in two national disasters in 1913 and 1919.

Presumably, Ferdinand was seeking the best way to defend Bulgaria's national interests, and Bulgaria did score some victories in the First Balkan War in 1912-1913. A memorable Bulgarian victory was won at Adrianople in the spring of 1913 when Turkey was brought to its knees and forced to give up most of its European territories. But again, uncontrolled willfulness prevailed over slow perseverance and impulsiveness over well-considered strategy. The history of the Balkan wars gives evidence of arbitrary decisions of the monarch, too. Several months earlier he threw the Bulgarian army into bloody and hopeless fights at Catalca in Turkey. At the time of his abdication in the autumn of 1918, Tsar Ferdinand realized the irony in the words he had pronounced upon ascending the throne: "I have come here to stay!"

This bitterness rankled him till his death in 1948.

Primary Source:
- Translated from the book "Rulers of Bulgaria"
- Bulgarian text by Profesor Milcho Lalkov, Ph.D.
- Published by Kibea Publishing Company, Sofia, Bulgaria

text used here with permission from translator, save modifications for noding

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