A Secret Society That Wasn’t Very Secret

A Secret Society That Wasn’t Very Secret

To realize the national ideal, the unification of all Serbs.  This organization prefers terrorist action to cultural activities; it will therefore remain secret. — stated purpose of Ujedinjenje Ili Smrt

When Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife the Duchess Sophie were assassinated in Sarajevo, the news abounded with references to a secret organization with far-reaching tentacles into the Serbian government that had been the mastermind behind the entire plot.  The day after the assassination, before much information was available, the Toronto Star featured a sub-headline “Slaying of the Archduke Was a Most Cleverly Planned Conspiracy” and calling it, “The most carefully arranged affair ever carried out in Europe.”

Obviously there was hyperbole involved, showing that today’s ratings-driven media is less of an anomaly than factual accountings, but it shows that from the beginning the reaction after hearing about the assassination conspiracy was more, “Oh THAT Black Hand!” rather than horror over the existence of a secret Serbian society.

A photo of The Black Hand, which makes the group seem less murderous and more of a collegiate folly. They were actually murderous.

The true name of the organization we refer to as The Black Hand was actually Ujedinnjenje Ili Smrt, or Unification or Death.  It was officially established in May 1911, but by using that date a great amount of the history leading up to the climactic assassination is cut off.  

The truth of the origins of The Black Hand is that there was no shortage of secret anti-Austrian societies floating around the Balkans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The period of time between the Treaty of Berlin and World War I was rife with assassinations, and most assassins got their murderous ideas and training somewhere – usually through a revolutionary society of some sort. 

The group that would eventually coalesce into The Black Hand began its terrorism in 1902, when plans for eliminating King Aleksander of Serbia and his wife Draga Mašin were first put forth.  There were poisonous stabbing plans and bombing plans which were abandoned for various reasons before the participating Serbian military officers led by Dragutin Dimitrijević stormed the palace and shot and hacked at the royal couple before throwing them out a window into a pile of waste.

The graves of King Aleksander and Queen Draga in Saint Mark’s Church, Belgrade

This created a void in Serbia, which needed a new King.  Petar Karađorđević fit the necessary royal profile, and best of all – he would owe his position to the secret society that murdered his predecessor. The officers that formed the assassination squad continued to prosper in the Serbian government, even receiving financial support from Petar’s son Aleksander Karađorđević. 

In 1908 Serbia was dealt a massive blow when Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Serbia considered the tiny nation, with its Slavic population and large Serbian minority, to properly belong within a southern Slav nation led by Serbia.  Serbia’s government began to mobilize for war, but was eventually talked down from that position by Russia – who was not ready to support the Serbs against the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  The annexation was a fait accompli, but not one that went without reaction.  A new secret society formed, the Narodna Odbrana (The People’s Defense) which had many of the same members as the plot against the Obrenović king.  Smaller cells of Narodna Odbrana were created in Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Istria.  

When Unification or Death was created three years later in 1911, the membership of the two organizations overlapped to a large degree.  It was a measurement of the immediate acceptance of the new group that it was mentioned in the Serbian Parliament as “The Black Hand” before the end of 1911.  

Taking its cues from the unification movements of Italy and Germany, The Black Hand even named its official magazine Pijemont, the Serbian word for “Piedmont”, the Italian kingdom that led the unification of Italy. There as no doubt as to what The Black Hand was planning, or who was supposed to be in charge of the unified Balkans. 

From the beginning, The Black Hand’s membership was comprised of many officers in the Serbian military who showed a definite flare for the dramatic.  The oath members had to take upon admittance was full of flowery language about blood, God, and forefathers, as well as submission to the judgment of the rest of the group:

I, [name], 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 honor and by my life, from this moment onward and until my death, I shall faithfully serve the task of this organization and that I shall at all times be prepaerd to bear for it any sacrifice.  I further swear by my God, by my honor, and by my life, that I shall unconditionally carry into effect all its orders and commands.  I further swear by my God, by my honor, and by my life, that I shall keep within myself all the secrets of this organization and carry them with me into my grave.  May God and my brothers in this organization be my judges if at any time I should wittingly fail or break this oath. — Unification or Death admission oath

In addition to the shared membership with Narodni Odbrana, The Black Hand had its hooks in many other nationalist organizations throughout the Balkans.  One of them, calling itself Mlada Bosna (Young Bosnia) was brought into Belgrade for firearms and bomb throwing training before being provided with pistols, bombs from the Serbian arsenal, and cyanide to use to commit suicide if caught.

Membership of Mlada Bosna, including three Princip brothers (seated in front)

Nikola Pašić, the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Serbia, was firmly in The Black Hand’s crosshairs, and so when word reached him that an assassination was being planned for the announced visit of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in the spring of 1914 he had little leeway within which to act.  

Nikola Pašić

On the one hand, the fact that Pašić heard about the plans at all was a shining example of just how many people in the Serbian government were involved in the supposedly secret organization.  On the other hand, The Black Hand did not shy away from using murder as a political tool and Pašić himself was walking on the knife’s edge.  He managed to send an anemic warning (which was totally disregarded) to Vienna, but that was the extent of what he could manage. 

Other senior members of The Black Hand were able to act more directly.  The executive council of the organization confronted Dragutin “Apis” Dimitrijević directly and ordered the assassination called off.  The executive committee was sure that such an action would lead to war with Austria-Hungary, and were not sure that they could count on Russia’s support after being betrayed during the Austria/Russia negotiations before the 1908 annexation of Bosnia.  Apis claimed that he attempted to reach the members of Mlada Bosna as ordered, but was unable.

And so the Archduke died, killed by Gavrilo Princip, a member of Mlada Bosna, with weapons provided by The Black Hand, from the inventory of the Serbian Army. The next month the Great War began.

At first The Black Hand seemed to have come out of the assassination incident unscathed and with increased prestige.  In 1916 Apis was promoted to colonel.  But the reality was not necessarily visible on the surface; the organization had reached too far.  Crown Prince Aleksander, who had previously supported them financially felt threatened, so he and Pašić developed a plan after initial aborted peace talks with Austria-Hungary.  

Apis and other members of The Black Hand were arrested in December 1916, and in March 1917 charged with the events in Sarajevo.  In the following Salonika Trial, Apis and eight other members were sentenced to death, although all but the sentences of four participants would be commuted to prison terms.

The Black Hand defendants and an unknown woman after the guilty verdicts in the Salonika Trial.

On his way to the execution site, Apis told his driver, “Now it is clear to me and to you, too, that I am to be killed today by Serbian rifles solely because I organized the Sarajevo outrage.”

Apis was executed by firing squad on 24 May 1917.  The power of The Black Hand in Serbia was broken, although the scattered members who had not been rounded up occasionally surfaced to briefly lead other revolutionary organizations.  

There is still argument over exactly how involved the secret society was in the Archduke’s assassination.  A 1953 Yugoslav retrial found all the defendants at Salonika not guilty, but by then they were all long dead and unable to testify.  That, and the status of Gavrilo Princip as a Yugoslav hero, don’t lend much trust to the later verdict.  

Gavrilo Princip monument in Belgrade

Apis’s own testimony implicates himself explicitly several times, but he was also a self-propagandist and wanted to be viewed as a powerful leader.  

In the end, The Black Hand was a not-very-secret secret society that was at least supplying the young assassins with weapons and training.  Without the weapons and training the Archduke would not have been assassinated.  

And the assassination of the Archduke, as stated by Vladimir Dedijer:

…no other political murder in modern history has had such momentous consequences as the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand von Österreich-Este, the heir apparent to the throne of the Hapsburg Empire, at the hands of Gavrilo Princip, in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. In his native Bosnia, whose tribal society had been disintegrating under the impact of modern colonialism, Princip fired his pistol not only at an Archduke but also at the façade of a quiet, apparently stable world.



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