“Assassination is the extreme form of censorship” – George Bernard Shaw

Severed hands have never been popular in the political arena.

As the 2016 U.S. presidential campaigns grind on, they highlight the fact that dynastic succession is a tricky business, what with all the jockeying for power, targeted assassinations (character or otherwise), and general impoliteness.  Obviously, being counted among the political aristocracy has its perks, but unless you’ve got a solid lock on the throne or choose the right side in the debate, more often than not historically, you eventually wind up sleeping with the fishes or, heaven forbid, running a non-profit foundation.  This election season offers an unusually robust smorgasbord of potential candidates, the sheer number of which seems, even to those firm believers in the democratic process, a bit on the excessive side and as we wade through the innuendo and rhetorical nastiness, it’s sometimes hard to believe that politics have never been kinder and gentler than in the modern, interconnected world we inhabit.

Despite your relative proportions of liberalism vs. conservatism, unless you irritate the wrong Russian, you’re probably not going to be served any polonium with your breakfast tea.  That’s not to say that political assassinations aren’t still a popular argument of last resort.  We’re not that civilized.  Yet, in the Western democracies they nonetheless seemed to have tapered off a bit.  The oft misquoted 18th Century Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz once said, “war is simply a continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means,” from which logically follows the notion that politics is a kind of bloodless war, unless of course, the politics are demanding your blood – typically a consequence of being (a) morally right, or (b) foolish enough to point out publically that you are morally right.  Now morals may be fungible things, but unless one has a serious sense of their own superiority, the basic ethos of living with our fellow man usually falls on the side of less despotism and a lower inclination towards throwing people on cattle cars or rounding them up into camps.  Or it did at any rate.  I’m not so sure anymore.

The problem with a political environment that lauds megalomania, advocates vicious and unrestrained attacks on one’s ideological opponents, and turns disagreement into combat (which if we face facts represents most of human history), is that if you do manage to seize the reins of power, you’ve also justified the strategies by which your opponents can advocate for your later removal.  In short, if you live by the sword, and have any degree of success at it, assume that you will one day be stabbed in the back, metaphorically speaking.  I don’t want to be on anyone’s watch list.  Mama did indeed raise a fool, but one with a healthy sense of self-preservation and a minor persecution complex.  Just minor because I don’t think anyone is actually persecuting me, rather they would if given the opportunity.

That’s why I’ve recently developed a certain fascination with what I regard as the cautionary tale of King Ferdinand I of Bulgaria and Count Stambuloff as particularly appros pos to modern state of electoral politics.  Ferdinand Maximilian Karl Leopold Maria of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, was the ruler of Bulgaria from 1887 to 1918.  This was a rough time to be King of Bulgaria.  The first Knyaz (sort of like a Prince Regent) of the Third Bulgarian State, Alexander of Battenberg, abdicated in 1886, only seven years after he was elected, usurped by a military coup.  The Bulgarian National Assembly, in a desperate attempt to avoid getting invaded by Russia offered the throne to both a number of princes of Denmark and the King of Romania, finally settling on Ferdinand (the son of Prince August of Saxe-Coburg) who at the time was an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army to the disbelief of the royal houses of Europe, who all considered him to be utterly unfit for the job.

For a few years, Bulgarian politics got messy, dominated as it was by Stefan Nikolov Stambuloff, a politician and liberal revolutionary who had participated in everything from the 1835 plots against Turkish rule, the Bulgarian Revolutionary Central Committee that dedicated itself to throwing off the Ottoman yoke, and in various uprisings.  Upon Alexander’s removal (the military coup was led by Russian-sympathetic officers), Stambuloff led a counter-coup to usurp the Russian-controlled provisional council.  He was deeply involved in bringing in Ferdinand, and with Ferdinand’s accession to the throne, Stambuloff became Prime Minister, serving from 1887-1894.  Tensions mounted between Ferdinand and Stambuloff, as Stambuloff continuously confounded Ferdinand’s attempts to accrue additional authority.  Now, Stambuloff wasn’t an especially nice guy himself, and barely survived a few assassination attempts, becoming increasingly sullen and morose, not to mention throwing an awful lot of people in jail.  In 1894, he was sick of it all, and resigned his position as Prime Minister.  Not long after, his carriage was attacked by four assassins who repeatedly stabbed him in the head.  His dying words were said to have been, “”Bulgaria’s people will forgive me everything. But they will not forgive that it was I who brought Ferdinand here”.  The general suspicion was that Ferdinand had orchestrated his death, likely because Stambuloff was the major obstacle to warmer relations with Russia.

Europe was getting increasingly concerned with the Balkan shenanigans that would ultimately lead to World War One, so opinionated columnists throughout the Western world had a great deal to say on the matter.  Stambuloff was a diehard advocate of Bulgarian independence and nationalism, a central symbolic figure, and given Bulgarian rapprochements to Russia, several made gruesome suggestions invoking the Ghost of Stambuloff.  An editorial from the New Zealand press is representative.

Ferdinand therefore abjured his religion and adopted that of the Tsar.  He found in his new kingdom a rough and honest patriot, named Stambuloff, who was given to thwarting kingly ambition.  He was the idol of the people; but he was mysteriously assassinated.  It was the common belief at the time that the King could have explained the whole matter.  It is said that patriots in Sofia preserve the severed hand of Stambuloff and have sworn that it shall not be buried until the king meets a condign fate…May the priest of his youth, the ghost of Stambuloff, and the spirits of the slain in the second Balkan War sit heavy on his soul, and may the hand of Stambuloff come to its burial soon (Dunedin Evening Star, 1915, p2).

Ferdinand was known to have a somewhat superstitious temperament, and was said to thereafter have been haunted by a phantom Stambuloff, who Ferdinand had felt exerted far too much force of character while he was alive.

King Ferdinand of Bulgaria is another monarch who has mystical tendencies. He is a nervous creature, afraid of his own shadow, and has a habit of “seeing ghosts.” It is said he is haunted by the shade of Stambuloff, the “Bismarck of the Balkans,” whom, it is alleged, he indirectly caused to be done to death. The last time I saw Stambuloff, a little while before his assassination, he had a sort of premonition that his days on earth would not be long. What a difference between the two men — the ruler and the minister! Stambuloff had a mental grip and force of character that never failed to impress anyone with whom he came in contact. Ferdinand has a shifty mind and about as much strength of character as a jelly-fish. Stambuloff, who, I gathered, did not hold Bulgaria’s ruler in any high esteem, was far too dominant a person to suit the envious, feeble-purposed Ferdinand (Cumberland, 1917, p52).

In the memoirs of famed Victorian ghost-hunter Elliott O’Donnell (1872-1965), O’Donnell recorded a conversation with two Bulgarian journalists named Guilgaut and Bonivon, detailing the haunting of Ferdinand by Stambuloff.

They then talked a lot about their adventures in the Balkans, and finally alluded to Ferdinand of Bulgaria. ‘If ever a man is haunted, he is,’ Guilgaut remarked. ‘I believe he never leaves his room at night without the shadow of Stambuloff, whose death he brought about in 1895. It simply steps out from the wall and follows him.’ ‘That is a lot of exaggeration, ‘Bonivon said with a laugh. ‘But, quite seriously, we heard on very excellent authority that on more than one occasion a figure has been seen accompanying Ferdinand sometimes when dining and sometimes when walking, and that it has been recognised by the spectators as Stambuloff, the dead Minister. Once, we were told, Ferdinand visited a certain Princess, and it was remarked that Her Royal Highness appeared strangely embarrassed and perturbed. At last someone ventured to enquire of the lady-in-waiting, who also appeared to be greatly perturbed, what was the matter. ‘It’s that man,’ was the whispered reply, ‘that man who persists in standing beside His Majesty. He never takes his eyes from our faces, and he looks just like a corpse.’ Her interrogator asked her to describe the figure, which he said was quite invisible to him.  She did so, and the description tallied exactly with that of Stambuloff (O’Donnell, 1917, p209-210).

Now, I’m not suggesting we stockpile severed hands just in case.  That would just be rude.  But it would seem our modern politicians, merrily engaged in ruthless character assassination of their opponents might wish to consider the existential implications of their actions.  Those who aspire to political power look upon us, and play their politics, imagining that “leadership” is the province of the chosen few, a modern aristocracy universally puffed up by the notion that they know better than we ourselves do about what is best for us.  Perhaps humility should be the primary requirement for political office, for as Horace said “Pale Death beats equally at the poor man’s gate and at the palaces of kings”.

Cumberland, Stuart. That Other World: Personal Experiences of Mystics And Their Mysticism. London: G. Richards, 1918.
O’Donnell, Elliott, 1872-1965. Twenty Years’ Experience as a Ghost Hunter. London: Heath, Cranton, Ltd, 1917.
Span, Reginald B. “Some Royal Apparitions”. The Lotus Magazine 9:1, 1917.
“On the Watch Tower”. Dunedin Evening Star, Issue 15964, November 18, 1915.