Black Hand

In May 1911, ten men in Serbia formed the Black Hand Secret Society. Early members included Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic, the chief of the Intelligence Department of the Serbian General Staff, Major Voja Tankosic and Milan Ciganovic.

The main objective of the Black Hand was the creation, by means of violence, of a Greater Serbia. Its stated aim was: "To realize the national ideal, the unification of all Serbs. This organisation prefers terrorist action to cultural activities; it will therefore remain secret."

Dragutin Dimitrijevic, who used the codename, Apis, established himself as the leader of the Black Hand. In 1911 he sent a member to assassinate Emperor Franz Josef. When this failed, Dimitrijevic turned his attention to General Oskar Potiorek, Governor of the Austrian provinces of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Dimitrijevic recruited Muhamed Mehmedbasic to kill Potiorek with a poisoned dagger. However, Mehmedbasic returned to Belgrade after failing to carry out the task.

By 1914 there were around 2,500 members of the Black Hand. The group was mainly made up of junior army officers but also included lawyers, journalists and university professors. About 30 of these lived and worked in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Three senior members of the Black Hand group, Dragutin Dimitrijevic, Milan Ciganovic, and Major Voja Tankosic, decided that Archduke Franz Ferdinand should be assassinated. Dimitrijevic was concerned about the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Ferdinand's plans to grant concessions to the South Slavs. Dimitrijevic feared that if this happened, an independent Serbian state would be more difficult to achieve.

When Dragutin Dimitrijevic heard that Archduke Franz Ferdinand was planning to visit Sarajevo in June 1914, he sent three members of the Black Hand group, Gavrilo Princip, Nedjelko Cabrinovic and Trifko Grabez from Serbia to assassinate him. Nikola Pasic, the prime minister of Serbia, Pasic heard about the plot and gave instructions for the three men to be arrested. However, his orders were not implemented and Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated.

Several members of the Black Hand group interrogated by the Austrian authorities claimed that three men from Serbia, Dragutin Dimitrijevic, Milan Ciganovic, and Major Voja Tankosic, had organised the plot. On 25th July, 1914, the Austro-Hungarian government demanded that the Serbian government arrest the men and send them to face trial in Vienna.

On 25th July, 1914, Nikola Pasic, the prime minister of Serbia, told the Austro-Hungarian government that he was unable to hand over these three men as it "would be a violation of Serbia's Constitution and criminal in law". Three days later Austro-Hungarian declared war on Serbia.

During the first two years of the First World War the Serbian Army suffered a series of military defeats. Nikola Pasic, who blamed the Black Hand for the war, and in December 1916 decided to disband the organisation. Dragutin Dimitrijevic and several of the Black Hand leaders were arrested and executed the following year.

Primary Sources

(1) Oath sword by all members of the Black Hand group.

I, in joining the organisation "Union or Death", swear by the Sun that warms me, by the Earth that nourishes me, before God, by the blood of the ancestors, on my honour and on my life, that I will from this moment until my death be faithful to the laws of this organisation; and that I will always be ready to make any sacrifice for it.

I swear before God, on my honour and on my life, that I will take all the secrets of this organisation into my grave with me.

(2) Constitution of the Black Hand Group (9th May, 1911)

Article 1. For the purpose of realising the national ideals - the Unification of Serbdom - an organization is hereby created, whose members may be any Serbian irrespective of sex, religion, place or birth, as well as anybody else who will sincerely serve this idea.

Article 2. The organisation gives priority to the revolutionary struggle rather than relies on cultural striving, therefore its institution is an absolutely secret one for wider circles.

Article 3. The organization bears the name: "Ujedinjenje ili Smrt".

Article 4. In order to carry into effect its task the organization will do the following things:

(1) Following the character of its raison d etre it will exercise its influence over all the official factors in Serbia - which is the Piemont of Serbdom - as also over all the strata of the State and over the entire social life in it:

(2) It will carry out a revolutionary organisation in all the territories where Serbians are living:

(3) Beyond the frontiers, it will fight with all means against all enemies of this idea:

(4) It will maintain friendly relations with all the States, nations, organisations, and individual persons who sympathise with Serbia and the Serbian race:

(5) It will give every assistance to those nations and organisations who are fighting for their own national liberation and unification.

Article 5. The supreme authority is vested in the Supreme Central Directorate with its headquarters at Belgrade. Its duty will be to see that the resolutions are carried into effect.

Article 6. The number of members of the Supreme Central Directorate is unlimited - but in principle it should be kept as low as possible.

Article 7. The Supreme Central Directorate shall include, in addition to the members from the Kingdom of Serbia, one accredited delegate from each of the organisations of all the Serbian regions: (1) Bosnia and Herzegovina, (2) Montenegro, (3) Old Serbia and Macedonia, (4) Croatia, Slovenia and Symria (Srem), (5) Voyvodina, (6) Sea-coasts.

(3) Borijove Jevtic, was a member of the Black Hand group in Serbia in 1914.

A tiny clipping from a newspaper mailed without comment from a secret band of terrorists in Zagreb to their comrades in Belgrade, was the torch which set the world afire with war in 1914. The little clipping was from the Srobibran, a Croation journal of limited circulation, and consisted of a short telegram from Vienna. The telegram declared that the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand would visit Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, 28 June, to direct army manoeuvres.

How dared Franz Ferdinand, not only the representative of the oppressor but in his own person an arrogant tyrant, enter Sarajevo on that day? Such an entry was a studied insult. 28 June is a date engraved deeply in the heart of every Serb, so that day has a name of its own. It is called vidounan. It is the day on which the old Serbian kingdom was conquered by the Turks at the battle of Amselfelde in 1389. That was no day for Franz Ferdinand, the new oppressor, to venture to the very doors of Serbia for a display of the force of arms which kept us beneath his heel. Our decision was taken almost immediately. Death to the tyrant!

(4) Dragutin Dimitrijevic, last will and testament, 11th June, 1917.

Although sentenced to death by two competent courts, and deprived of the mercy of the Crown, I die innocently, and in the conviction that my death is necessary to Serbia for higher reasons.

I may, without wishing to, have committed errors in my work as a patriot. I may even, unknowingly, have hurt Serbian interests. But in taking any action one almost always runs the risk of being sometimes wrong. I am certain, however, of having committed no intentional errors, and of always having wished to serve no other cause than that of Serbia.

(5) Lieutenant Colonel Ljubomir Dabic, official witness of the execution of Dragutin Dimitrijevic (26th June, 1917)

The three condemned men stepped down into the ditches that had been dug for the purpose, and placed themselves in front of the stakes. Dimitrijevic on the right, Vulovic in the middle, and Malobabic on the left. After being blindfolded, Dimitrijevic and Vulovic cried: "Long live Greater Serbia!"

Malobabic succumbed after the first five shots, while the two others suffered longer, twenty shots having to be fired at each of them. No one was hit in the head. The execution was over at 4.47 in the morning.