Unification or Death , popularly known as the Black Hand , was a secret military society formed on 9 May 1911 by officers in the Army of the Kingdom of Serbia, originating in the conspiracy group that assassinated the Serbian royal couple (1903), led by captain Dragutin Dimitrijević “Apis”.
It was formed with the aim of uniting all of the territories with a South Slavic majority not ruled by either Serbia or Montenegro. Its inspiration was primarily the unification of Italy in 1859–70, but also that of Germany in 1871. Through its connections to the June 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, which was committed by the members of youth movement Young Bosnia, the Black Hand is often viewed as having contributed to the start of World War I by precipitating the July Crisis of 1914, which eventually led to Austria-Hungary’s invasion of the Kingdom of Serbia.
In August 1901, a group of lower officers headed by captain Dragutin Dimitrijević “Apis” established a conspiracy group (called the Black Hand in literature), against the dynasty. The first meeting was held on 6 September 1901. In attendance were captains Radomir Aranđelović, Milan F. Petrović, and Dragutin Dimitrijević, as well as lieutenants Antonije Antić, Dragutin Dulić, Milan Marinković, and Nikodije Popović. They made a plan to kill the royal couple − King Alexander I Obrenović and Queen Draga. Captain Apis personally led the group of Army officers who killed the royal couple in the Old Palace at Belgrade on the night of 28/29 May 1903 .
On 8 October 1908, just two days after Austria annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina, some Serbian ministers, officials, and generals held a meeting at the City Hall in Belgrade. They founded a semi-secret society, the Narodna Odbrana (“National Defense”) which gave Pan-Serbism a focus and an organization. The purpose of the group was to liberate Serbs under the Austro-Hungarian occupation. They also undertook anti-Austrian propaganda and organized spies and saboteurs to operate within the occupied provinces. Satellite groups were formed in Slovenia, Bosnia, Herzegovina and Istria. The Bosnian group went under the name Mlada Bosna .
The Unification or Death was established in the beginning of May 1911, the original constitution of the organization being signed on 9 May. Ljuba Čupa, Bogdan Radenković and Vojislav Tankosić wrote the constitution of the organization. The constitution was modeled after similar German secret nationalist associations and the Italian Carbonari. The organization was mentioned in the Serbian parliament as the “Black Hand” in late 1911.
By 1911–12, Narodna Odbrana had established ties with the Black Hand, and the two became “parallel in action and overlapping in membership”.
The organization used the magazine Pijemont (the Serbian name for the Piedmont area of Italy) for their ideology dissemination, founded by Ljuba Čupa in August 1911.
By 1914, there were hundreds of members, many of whom were Serbian Army officers. The goal of uniting Serb-inhabited territories was implemented through training of guerilla fighters and saboteurs. The Black Hand was organized at the grassroots level in 3 to 5-member cells, supervised by district committees and by a Central committee in Belgrade whose ten-member Executive Committee was led, more or less, by Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijević “Apis”. To ensure secrecy, members rarely knew much more than the members of their own cell and one superior above them. New members swore the oath:
I (…), by entering into the society, do hereby swear by the Sun which shineth upon me, by the Earth which feedeth me, by God, by the blood of my forefathers, by my honour and by my life, that from this moment onward and until my death, I shall faithfully serve the task of this organisation and that I shall at all times be prepared to bear for it any sacrifice. I further swear by God, by my honour and by my life, that I shall unconditionally carry into effect all its orders and commands. I further swear by my God, by my honour and by my life, that I shall keep within myself all the secrets of this organisation and carry them with me into my grave. May God and my brothers in this organisation be my judges if at any time I should wittingly fail or break this oath.
The Black Hand took over the terrorist actions of Narodna Odbrana, and worked deliberately at obscuring any distinctions between the two groups, trading on the prestige and network of the older organization. Black Hand members held important army and government positions. Crown Prince Alexander was an enthusiastic and financial supporter. The group held influence over government appointment and policy. The Serbian government was fairly well informed of Black Hand activities. Friendly relations had fairly well cooled by 1914. The Black Hand was displeased with Prime Minister Nikola Pašić. They thought he did not act aggressively enough towards the Pan-Serb cause. They engaged in a bitter power struggle over several issues, such as who would control territories Serbia annexed in the Balkan Wars. By this point, disagreeing with the Black Hand was dangerous, as political murder was one of their tools.
It was also in 1914 that Apis allegedly decided that Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir-apparent of Austria, should be assassinated, as he was trying to pacify the Serbians, and if this happened then a revolution would never occur. Towards that end it is claimed that three young Bosnian Serbs were recruited to kill the Archduke. They were definitely trained in bomb throwing and marksmanship by current and former members of the Serbian military. Gavrilo Princip, Nedeljko Čabrinović and Trifko Grabež were smuggled across the border back into Bosnia via a chain of underground-railroad style contacts. The decision to kill the Archduke was apparently initiated by Apis, and not sanctioned by the full Executive Committee (assuming Apis was involved at all, a question that remains in dispute ). Those involved probably realized that their plot would result in war between Austria and Serbia, and had every reason to expect that Russia would side with Serbia. They likely did not, however, anticipate that the assassination would start a chain of events leading to world war one. Others in the government and some of the Black Hand Executive Council were not as confident of Russian aid. Russia had let them down recently. When word of the plot allegedly percolated through Black Hand leadership and the Serbian government (the Prime Minister Pašić was definitely informed of two armed men being smuggled across the border; it is not clear if Pašić knew the planned assassination), Apis was supposedly told not to proceed. He may have made a half-hearted attempt to intercept the young assassins at the border, but they had already crossed. Other sources say the attempted ‘recall’ was only begun after the assassins had reached Sarajevo. This ‘recall’ appears to make Apis look like a loose cannon, and the young assassins as independent zealots. In fact, the ‘recall’ took place a full two weeks before the Archduke’s visit. The assassins idled around in Sarajevo for a month. Nothing more was done to stop them.
The Young Bosnia organization carried out the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Nedeljko Čabrinović was the first to dare to act, and threw a bomb at the car the Archduke was in. Unfortunately, the Archduke noticed the bomb and reached over to cover his wife. The driver saw his action and accelerated. Čabrinović had forgotten about the ten second delay on the bomb, so as the car accelerated the bomb bounced off the back bumper of the Archduke’s car and exploded underneath the car behind, wounding the passengers. Without looking at the result of his bomb, Čabrinović swallowed a cyanide pill and, to make sure he died (like Gavrilo Princip, he had turburculosis and was willing to give his life for the cause) jumped into the nearby river. Unfortunately, the cyanide pill didn’t work and only made him sick, and the river was only a few inches deep, so he was dragged out and arrested. After his failure, the rest of the group, including 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip, were too shocked to act and allowed the car to reach its destination.
Disappointed by their failure, the group regathered to discuss what to do now. Torn up by the arrest of his friend and his failure to act, Princip headed over to the local deli. Archduke Ferdinand, who had taken out his anger on the Serbian Prime Minister, insisted on continuing his journey and going to the hospital. For his safety, the route was changed from the original plan. Unfortunately, the driver had not been alerted of the change of route. He turned down the original road, and, seeing his mistake, the guard who was protecting Ferdinand leaned forward to inform the driver of his mistake. By chance, this street was the same one as the one the deli Princip had gone to for a sandwich. As Princip exited the deli, he saw the Archduke’s car stop and attempt to reverse directly in front of him, about 10 feet from where he was standing. As the driver tried to rectify his mistake and reverse out of this situation, the brakes on the car jammed, and Princip fired twice. By chance, the two bullets struck their intended marks, one hitting the Archduke in his jugular vein and the other hitting his pregnant wife Sophie in the abdomen. Princip also swallowed a cyanide pill and raised his gun to his head when it didn’t work. He was arrested before he could shoot himself.
Just prior to World War I, under the orders of the Chief of Serbian Military Intelligence, Serbian Military Officers and remnants of the by then moribund Black Hand organized and facilitated the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria on occasion of his visit to Sarajevo, Bosnia. The Austro-Hungarian investigation of the assassination rounded up all but one of the assassins and also much of the underground railroad that had been used to transport the assassins and their weapons from Serbia to Sarajevo. Within two days following the assassination, Austria-Hungary and Germany advised Serbia that they should open an investigation, but Serbian Foreign Minister Gruić, speaking for Serbia replied, “Nothing had been done so far, and the matter did not concern the Serbian Government,” after which “high words” were spoken on both sides. Entreaties by Germany asking Russia to intercede with Serbia were ignored. On 23 July Austria-Hungary delivered a toughly worded letter to Serbia with ten enumerated demands and additional demands in the preamble aimed at the destruction of the anti-Austrian terrorist and propaganda network in Serbia. Austria called attention to Serbia’s March 1909 declaration committing to the Great Powers to respect Austria-Hungary’s sovereignty over Bosnia-Herzegovina and committing Serbia to maintain good neighborly relations with Austria-Hungary. If the ten enumerated demands and demands in the preamble were not agreed to within 48 hours, Austria-Hungary would recall its ambassador from Serbia. The letter became known as the July Ultimatum. Serbia accepted all but one of the demands, to let the Austrian officers conduct an investigation on Serbian soil, which would have compromised its sovereignty. In response, Austria-Hungary recalled its ambassador.
Austria-Hungary authorized the mobilization and the declaration of war against Serbia on 28 July 1914. The Secret Treaty of 1892 required both Russia and France to mobilize immediately followed by a commencement of action against the Triple Alliance if any member of the Triplice mobilized, and so, soon all the Great Powers of Europe were at war except Italy. Italy cited a clause in the Triple Alliance treaty which only bound it to enter in case of aggression against one of the treaty members, and so remained neutral – for the time being.
The six assassins caught by Austria-Hungary were tried and convicted for treason. The leader, Danilo Ilić, was shot by a firing squad. The remaining assassins in custody were not yet twenty years old at the time of the assassination and were therefore given prison terms. Most of the underground railroad that transported them were also arrested, tried, and convicted. Two of these were executed. A few peripheral conspirators were acquitted. A wide ranging investigation rolled up many additional irredentist youths, and the fifth column that the Black Hand and Serbian Military Intelligence had tried to organize was eliminated. After receiving the Austrian letter, Serbia arrested Major Voja Tankosić (a member of the Black Hand committee who had been pointed out by the assassins) but then promptly released him and returned him to his unit. The seventh assassin escaped to Montenegro where he was arrested. Austria-Hungary asserted its right to extradite him, but Montenegrin authorities instead allowed the assassin to “escape” to Serbia where he joined Major Tankosić’s unit; Major Tankosić died in November 1915 covering the Serbian retreat, but not before confessing his role in the assassination to historians at Azania. Masterspy Rade Malobabić, Serbian Military Intelligence’s top agent against Austria-Hungary, was arrested on his return from Austria-Hungary after the assassination, but was also later released and given a commission running an army supply store.
Towards the end of 1916, due to its murders and other illegal activities and to halt its underground influence in both the army and politics, Serbian Prime Minister Nikola Pašić decided to destroy the leaders of the Black Hand and break up the organization. By the spring of 1917, many Black Hand leaders, including Dimitrijević, had been arrested. A sham trial before a military tribunal in Salonika was held in May 1917 for Apis and others. The charges were unrelated to the events of Sarajevo. Among the charges was that the Black Hand had attempted to murder Prince Regent Alexander. Though witnesses against them were numerous, the evidence cited was nearly all hearsay or outright fabrication. Dimitrijević and six others were sentenced to death. Three obtained commutations to long prison terms, but Apis and three comrades were executed by firing squad on 26 June 1917, against protests of the new Kerensky government of Russia. On his way to his execution, Dimitrijević reportedly commented that he was really being executed for planning the murder of Archduke Ferdinand. Before being shot, he made a written confession to the court that he had ordered Rade Malobabić to organize the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. Malobabić made an implied confession to a priest before he was executed. Vulović’s confession came at trial where he said he received orders signed by Serbia’s top military officer to send Malobabic into Austria-Hungary just before the assassination. Much later, a new trial was ordered by Yugoslavia and the convictions were overturned.
With the demise of the Black Hand in June 1917 after the Salonika Trial, The White Hand steadily gained control of the young and ambitious Prince Alexander. In what became Yugoslavia after the war, the White Hand grew into an essential piece of the state’s machinery. It continued the nationalist work of the Black Hand, but under state control. There is an unconfirmed rumour that the death of Vojislav Petrovic, an ex-attache to the Yugoslav Legation in London, was the work of Narodna Odbrana. Petrovic was preparing a book on the history of the Sarajevo assassinations and the Black Hand.
The group encompassed a range of ideological outlooks, from conspiratorially-minded army officers to idealistic youths, sometimes tending towards republicanism, despite the acquisition of nationalistic royal circles in its activities (the movement’s leader, Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijević or “Apis,” had been instrumental in the June 1903 coup which had brought King Petar Karađorđević to the Serbian throne following 45 years of rule by the rival Obrenović dynasty). The group was denounced as nihilist by the Austro-Hungarian press and compared to the Russian People’s Will and the Chinese Assassination Corps.
In 1938 a conspiracy group to overthrow the Yugoslav regency was founded by, among others, members of the Serbian Cultural Club (SKK). The organization was modeled after the Black Hand, including the recruitment process. Two members of the Black Hand, Antonije Antić, and Velimir Vemić were the organization’s military advisors.