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Unification or Death / Black Hand
File:Black Hand seal.gif
Black Hand seal
Formation 6 September 1901

1) Liberation of Austro-Hungarian South Slavs (Yugoslavism)
2) Unification of ethnic Serb territories (Greater Serbia)

  • Ideology: Yugoslavism, Serbian nationalism, Greater Serbia, Idealism, Republicanism, Pan-Slavism, Nihilism (according to Austro-Hungarian press) also inspirations from German Romanticism, Anarchism, Russian Revolutionary socialism, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, and the Battle of Kosovo
  • Balkans
Key people
Dragutin Dimitrijević

Unification or Death (Serbian language: Уједињење или смрт, Ujedinjenje ili smrt),[1] unofficially known as the Black Hand (Црна рука, Crna ruka), was a secret military society[2] formed on 6 September 1901 by members of the Serbian Army in the Kingdom of Serbia.[3] It was formed with the aim of uniting all of the territories with majority South Slavic population not ruled by the Kingdom of Serbia or Kingdom of Montenegro in the manner of earlier national unification processes, primarily Italian in 1870 and German in 1871.[4][5] 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 the organization that may have contributed to the start of World War I, fueling the July Crisis of 1914 and giving Austria-Hungary a pretext to its invasion of independent Serbia.[6]


The Black Hand was founded on 6 September 1901.[3][7] The conspirators' first meeting was in the same year. In attendance: captains Radomir Aranđelović, Milan F. Petrović, and Dragutin Dimitrijević, as well as lieutenants Antonije Antić, Dragutin Dulić, Milan Marinković, and Nikodije Popović.[3] They made a plan to kill the royal couple − King Alexander I Obrenović and Queen Draga. The birthday of Queen Draga was 11 September 1864 (Old Style), and in honour of this occasion preparations were being made to hold a celebration at the palace Kolarac.[3][7] The main weapons of assassination chosen organised the successful assassination of King Alexander I of Serbia and his consort Draga; he confirmed that Captain Dragutin Dimitrijevic, who had 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 (Old Style), was also the Black Hand's leader.[8] On 8 October 1908, just two days after Austria annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina, many men, some of them ranking Serbian ministers, officials and generals, held a meeting at City Hall in Belgrade. They founded a semi-secret society—Narodna Odbrana (National Defense) which gave the Greater Serbia idea a focus and an organization. The purpose of the group was to liberate Serbs under the control of Austria-Hungary. They also undertook anti-Austrian propaganda and organized spies and saboteurs to operate within the empire's provinces. Satellite groups were formed in Slovenia, Bosnia, Herzegovina and Istria. The Bosnian group went under the name Mlada Bosna (Young Bosnia). In 1909, Austria pressured the Serbian government to put a stop to their anti-Austrian insurrection. Russia was not ready to stand fully behind Serbia should hostilities escalate, so Belgrade was grudgingly forced to comply. From then on, Narodna Odbrana concentrated on education and propaganda within Serbia, trying to fashion itself as a cultural organization.

Birth of the Black Hand

Ritual cross of the Black Hand

File:The funeral of the royal couple in 1903.jpg

The funeral of the royal couple Aleksandar Obrenović and Draga Mašin on 29 May 1903 after the May Overthrow

The Black Hand was formed when ten men met on 9 May 1911 to form Ujedinjenje ili Smrt (Unification or Death), better known as the Black Hand.

By 1914, there were several hundred members, perhaps as many as 2500. Many members were Serbian army officers. The professed goal of the group was the creation of a Greater Serbia, by use of violence, if necessary. The Black Hand trained guerillas and saboteurs and planned political murders. 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 (also known as Apis). To ensure secrecy, members rarely knew much more than the members of their own cell and one superior above them. New members swore "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."[9]

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.[citation needed] 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, standing up and saying 'no' to the Black Hand was a dangerous act. Political murder was one of their well known tools.

It was also in 1914 that Apis decided that Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir-apparent of Austria, should be assassinated. Towards that end, three young Bosnian-Serbs were recruited and trained in bomb throwing and marksmanship. 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. Those involved probably realized that their plot would invite war between Austria and Serbia. They had every reason to expect that Russia would side with Serbia. In all likelihood, they did not anticipate that their personal ideals and secret political aspirations would mushroom into world war. Others in the government and some on the Black Hand Executive Council were not as confident of Russian aid. Russia had let them down recently. When word of the plot percolated through Black Hand leadership and the Serbian government, Apis was told not to proceed. He made a half-hearted attempt to intercept the young assassins at the border, but they had already crossed. 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.

Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

The organization of Bosnian anti-Habsburg and anti-Austrian students called Young Bosnia carried out the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. After the six unsuccessful attacks of Nedeljko Čabrinović because Ferdinand's driver took a wrong turn, Gavrilo Princip succeeded in killing the Archduke and his wife with two bullets from his handgun. Until a few weeks later, the guilt for the crime had settled loosely on Serbia in general. Long-existing tensions between Serbia and Austria eventually drew in the other European powers and escalated into the beginning of World War 1. The Serbians prevented Austria-Hungary from investigating in the assassination of the archduke.


Towards the end of 1916, due to political intrigues, Serbian Prime Minister Pasic decided to destroy the leaders of the Black Hand and break up the organization. By the spring of 1917, many Black Hand leaders, including Apis, had been arrested. A sham trial before a military tribunal in Salonika was held in May 1917 for Apis and others. 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 fabrications. Apis 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.

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 imperialistic work of the Black Hand, using the same techniques. The death of Vojislav Petrovic, an ex-attache to the Yugoslav Legation in London, was said to be the work of Narodna Odbrana. Petrovic was preparing a book on the history of the Sarajevo assassinations and the Black Hand.

Activity in the Kingdom of Montenegro

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In 1908 (the affair is known under the name Bombaška afera) the Serbian nationalists tried to kill the Montenegrin king, considering him an obstacle to the unification of all Serbs in one state. The Montenegrin police were tipped off about the plot and arrested the plotters.

In 1909 (the affair is known under the name Kolašinska afera) Serbian nationalist tried to organize an insurrection against the Montenegrin king and government. The plot also failed.

The Black Hand is considered to have been involved in both plots.

Balkan Wars

In 1912, differences between the two main groups of the Narodna Odbrana—political leaders of the Radical Party and military officers—arose. The political leaders preferred a more passive approach for the time being, including more peaceful relations with Austria and concentrating on strengthening Serbia for future struggle, but some of the military officers grew impatient with the more moderate radical policies. Consequently, the more zealous members of the Narodna Odbrana started a new secret society, and the Black Hand was founded.

Reportedly, they were involved in various crimes in Macedonia, during the Balkan Wars:

At Uskub, a central committee of "national defense", with branches in other Macedonian towns, was formed side by side with the higher command, upon the arrival of the troops. The population of Uskub called their station behind the house of Weiss, near the Russian consulate, "the black house," from the name of the league itself, "the black hand." The worst crimes were committed by this secret organization, known to all the world and under powerful protection.[10]

Report of the International Commission on the Balkan Wars

World War I

Dragutin Dimitrijević "Apis" (right) and his associates.

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 Gruic, 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 so were 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. In 1917 Serbia's government in exile arrested the leadership of the Black Hand wishing to halt their underground influence in both the army and politics. The leadership was tried before a kangaroo court and convicted on false charges[citation needed] unrelated to Sarajevo, such as plotting an assassinations of Nikola Pašić and Crown prince Aleksandar; many were given death sentences. Three of the accused were ultimately shot by firing squad, against protests of the new Kerensky government of Russia. Before being shot, Dragutin Dimitrijević 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.


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.

See also


  1. Constitution of the Black Hand – World War I Document Archive. Retrieved on 8 November 2011.
  2. Lutz, Hermann. "The Serbian 'Black Hand'," The Freeman, Vol. 7, N°. 164, pp. 179-181, May 2, 1923.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Antić, Antonije: Notes, Museum of city Zaječer, Zaječar, 2010.
  4. "Gavrilo Princip and the Black Hand organization". Bookrags. 
  5. Alan Cassels (15 November 1996). Ideology and international relations in the modern world. Psychology Press. pp. 122–. ISBN 978-0-415-11926-9. Retrieved 8 November 2011. 
  6. David Stevenson, 1914-1918, 2012 Penguin, reissue, p.12
  7. 7.0 7.1 Antonije Antić:School's nest of conspiracy, Evening news, feuilleton, 20 November 2010 (Serbian)
  8. C. L. Sulzberger The Fall of Eagles, 1977, Crown Publisher's, Inc., New York, pp. 202, 221 ISBN 0517528177
  9. Press (2011-10-07). Retrieved on 2011-11-08. (Serbian)
  10. Report of the International Commission to Inquire into the Causes and Conduct of the Balkan Wars (pp. 169)

Further reading

  • Albertini, Luigi, Origins of the War of 1914, 3 vol., Oxford University Press, 1953.
  • Dedijer, Vladimir, The Road to Sarajevo (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1966).
  • Fay, Sidney, The Origins of the World War, 2 vols., The Macmillan Company, 1928.
  • Jelavich, Barbara, "What the Habsburg Government Knew about the Black Hand," Austrian History Yearbook 22 (1991), pp. 131–150
  • MacKenzie, David, Apis: The Congenial Conspirator; The Life of Colonel Dragutin T. Dimitrijević (East European Monographs, No. 265; Boulder, Colo.: East European Monographs; New York: distributed by Columbia University Press, 1989)
  • MacKenzie, David, The "Black hand" on Trial: Salonika, 1917 (East East European Monographs, No. 423; Boulder, Colo.: East European Monographs; New York: distributed by Columbia University Press, 1995)
  • MacKenzie, David, The Exoneration of the "Black Hand," 1917-1953 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998)
  • Owings, W. A. Dolph, Elizabeth Pribic and Nikola Pribic, The Sarajevo Trial (Chapel Hill: Documentary Publications, 1984).
  • Remak, Joaquim, Sarajevo: The Story of a Political Murder, Criterion Books, Inc., 1959

External links

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