The Black Hand
The Secret Serbian Terrorist Society
by Micheal Shackelford
On October 8, 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 Pan-Slavism a focus and an organization. The purpose of the group was to recruit and train partisans for a possible war between Serbia and Austria. They also undertook anti-Austrian propaganda and organized spies and saboteurs to operate within the empire's provinces. Satellite groups were formed in Slovinia, Bosnia, Herzegovina and Istria. The Bosnian group went under the name Mlada Bosna -- Young Bosnia.
Narodna Odbrana's work had been so effective that in 1909 a furious Austria pressured the Serbian government to put a stop to their anti-Austrian insurrection. Russia was not ready to stand fully behind Serbia should things come to a showdown, 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.
The Birth of the Black Hand
Many members formed a new, and again secret, organization to continue the terrorist actions. Ten men met on May 9, 1911 to form Ujedinjenje ili Smrt (Union or Death), also known as The Black Hand. The seal of their group is reproduced above.
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 arranged political murders. The Black Hand was organized at the grassroots level in 3 to 5-member cells. Above them were district committees. Above them, was the Central committee in Belgrade. At the top was the ten-member Executive Committee led, more or less, by Colonial Dragutin Dimitrijevic, (also known as Apis ). Members rarely knew much more than the members of their own cell and one superior above them, to ensure that the group's leaders would remain secret. New members swore "...before God, on my honor and my life, that I will execute all missions and commands without question. I swear before God, on my honor and on my life, that I will take all the secrets of this organization into my grave with me."
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 Pasic. 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. Princip, Cabrinovic' and Grabez 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 little war 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. The extensive network of contacts that smuggled them into Sarajevo, fed and housed them, was not utilized to stop them. This calls into question the Black Hand's and the Serbian government's desire that the plot truly be cancelled.
Of the seven young men involved, Princip succeeded in killing the Archduke. (Read the Sarajevo, June 28, 1914 article for a fuller account of the assassination.) The careful secrecy of the Black Hand delayed its being found out as the instigator of the crime until many weeks later. By that time, the guilt for the crime had settled loosely on Serbia in general. Tensions between Serbia and Austria eventually drew in the other European powers and escalated into world war.
Towards the end of 1916, 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 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 the number of 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 June 26, 1917.
In June 1917, the Black Hand was outlawed. Intriguing and insurrection, by their very nature, however, are not bothered by legalities. A new organization -- The White Hand -- was formed from trustworthy men of Narodna Odbrana . 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.
In what became Yugoslavia after the war, the White Hand grew into an essential piece of the state's machinery.
Related Articles in World War I Document Archive
Sarajevo, June 28, 1914
Constitution of the Black Hand
Biography of Colonel Dimitrijvic, the mastermind.
Biography of Franz Ferdinand, the slain Archduke.
Biography of Sophie , Franz Ferdinand's wife.
Biography of Princip, the gunman.
Biography of Cabrinovic, the bomber.
Biography of Ilic, the assassin who talked.
Sarajevo: the story of a political murder, by Joachim Remak, 1959
Origins of World War I: 1871-1914, by Joachim Remak, 1967
Black Hand Over Europe, by Henri Pozzi, 1935