Black Hand (Serbia)

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Unification or Death
Ujedinjenje ili smrt
Уједињење или смрт
Also known asBlack Hand
LeaderDragutin Dimitrijević
FoundationAugust 1901
(as Black Hand Society)
May 1911
(as Unification or Death)[1][2]
Active regionsBalkan Peninsula
Greater Serbia
Serbian nationalism
Notable attacksKilling of Alexander I
Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand
Succeeded by
Serbian Cultural Club (unofficial)

Unification or Death (Serbian: Ujedinjenje ili smrt, Serbian Cyrillic: Уједињење или смрт), popularly known as the Black Hand (Serbian: Crna ruka, Serbian Cyrillic: Црна рука), was a secret military society formed in 1901 by officers in the Army of the Kingdom of Serbia. It gained a reputation for its alleged involvement in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 and for the earlier assassination of the Serbian royal couple in 1903, under the aegis of Captain Dragutin Dimitrijević (a.k.a. "Apis").[3]

The society formed to unite all of the territories with a South Slavic majority that were not then ruled by either Serbia or Montenegro. It took inspiration primarily from the unification of Italy in 1859–1870, but also from the unification of Germany in 1871.[4][5] Through its connections to the June 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, carried out by the members of the youth movement Young Bosnia, the Black Hand is often viewed as instrumental in starting World War I (1914–1918) by precipitating the July Crisis of 1914, which eventually led to Austria-Hungary's invasion of the Kingdom of Serbia in August 1914.[6]


Apis' conspiracy group and the May Coup[edit]

Early members of the Black Hand

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.[7] 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.[8] They made a plan to kill the royal couple—King Alexander I Obrenović and Queen Draga. On the night of 28/29 May 1903, Captain Apis personally led a group of Army officers who murdered the royal couple at the Old Palace in Belgrade (Old Style). Along with the royal couple, the conspirators killed Prime Minister Dimitrije Cincar-Marković, Minister of the Army Milovan Pavlović, and General-Adjutant Lazar Petrović. This became known as the May Coup.

National defence[edit]

On 8 October 1908, just two days after Austria annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina, 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 shared 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 became deeply associated with local groups of pan-Serb activists such as Mlada Bosna ("Young Bosnia").[9]


Ritual cross of the Black Hand

Unification or Death was established at the beginning of May 1911,[10] and the original constitution of the organization was signed on 9 May.[11] Ljuba Čupa, Bogdan Radenković, and Vojislav Tankosić wrote the constitution of the organization,[12] modeled after similar German secret nationalist associations and the Italian Carbonari.[12][13] The organization was mentioned in the Serbian parliament as the "Black Hand" in late 1911.[14]

By 1911–12, Narodna Odbrana had established ties with the Black Hand, and the two became "parallel in action and overlapping in membership".[15]


The organization used the magazine Pijemont (the Serbian name for Piedmont, the kingdom that led the unification of Italy under the House of Savoy) for the dissemination of their ideas.[16] The magazine was founded by Ljuba Čupa in August 1911.[17]


By 1914, the group had hundreds of members, many of them Serbian Army officers. The goal of uniting Serb-inhabited territories was implemented by training guerilla fighters and saboteurs. The Black Hand was organized at the grassroots level in cells of three to five members, supervised by district committees and by a Central Committee in Belgrade, whose ten-member executive committee was primarily led by Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijević "Apis". To ensure secrecy, members rarely knew much more than the other 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.[18]

The Black Hand took over the terrorist actions[which?] of Narodna Odbrana and deliberately worked to obscure 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 financial supporter.[19] The group held influence over government appointments and policies. 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 and thought that he did not act aggressively enough for the Pan-Serb cause. The Black Hand engaged in a bitter power struggle over several issues, such as who would control territories that Serbia had annexed during the Balkan Wars. By then, disagreeing with the Black Hand was dangerous, as political murder was one of its tools.

In 1914, Apis allegedly decided that Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir-apparent of Austria, should be assassinated, as he was trying to pacify the Serbians, which would prevent a revolution if he was successful. Towards that end, three young Bosnian Serbs were allegedly recruited to kill the Archduke. They were certainly 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 by a chain of contacts similar to the Underground Railroad. The decision to kill the Archduke was initiated by Apis and not sanctioned by the full Executive Committee (if Apis was involved at all, a question that remains in dispute[20]).

Those involved probably realised 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 the chain of events leading to World War I. Others in the government and some of the Black Hand Executive Council were not as confident of Russian aid since Russia had recently let them down.

When word of the plot allegedly percolated through Black Hand leadership and the Serbian government (Prime Minister Pašić was informed of two armed men being smuggled across the border, but it is not clear if Pašić knew of 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' began only after the assassins had reached Sarajevo. The 'recall' appears to have made Apis look like a loose cannon and the young assassins like independent zealots. The 'recall' took place fully two weeks before the Archduke's visit. The assassins idled in Sarajevo for a month. Nothing more was done to stop them.


The group encompassed a range of ideological outlooks, from conspiratorially-minded army officers to idealistic youths, sometimes tending towards republicanism, despite their patrons in nationalistic royal circles. The movement's leader, 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.[citation needed]


In 1938, Konspiracija, a conspiracy group to overthrow the Yugoslav regency was founded by, among others, members of the Serbian Cultural Club (SKK).[21] The organization was modeled after the Black Hand, including the recruitment process.[22] Two members of the Black Hand, Antonije Antić and Velimir Vemić, were the organization's military advisors.[23]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Martel, Gordon (2014). The Month that Changed the World: July 1914 and WWI. Oxford University Press. pp. 58–60. ISBN 978-0191643279.
  2. ^ Newman, John Paul (2015). Yugoslavia in the Shadow of War. Cambridge University Press. p. 29. ISBN 978-1107070769.
  3. ^ "Black Hand | secret Serbian society". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 21 February 2019.
  4. ^ Gavrilo Princip and the Black Hand organization. Bookrags.
  5. ^ Alan Cassels (1996). Ideology and international relations in the modern world. Psychology Press. pp. 122–. ISBN 978-0415119269.
  6. ^ David Stevenson (2012). 1914–1918: The History of the First World War. Penguin. p. 12. ISBN 978-0-141-90434-4.
  7. ^ Borislav Ratković; Mitar Đurišić; Savo Skoko (1972). Srbija i Crna Gora u balkanskim ratovima 1912–1913. Beogradski izdavačko-grafički zavod. Y августу 1901. нижи официри су, под руководством капетана Драгутина Димитр^евиhа – Аписа, створили заверенички покрет против ди- насти е ("Црна рука").
  8. ^ Antić & 2010-11-20.
  9. ^ Clark, Christopher (2012). The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. Penguin UK. p. 69. ISBN 978-0718192952.
  10. ^ Đorđe Radenković (1997). Pašić i Srbija. Službeni list SRJ. p. 462. ISBN 978-8635503332.
  11. ^ Srpska akademija nauka i umetnosti (1955). Posebna izdanja. Vol. 243. p. 199. Оригинални Устав истого, друштва од 9/22 ма]а 1911 год. са своеручним потписила опт.
  12. ^ a b Stanoje Stanojević (1929). Narodna enciklopedija srpsko-hrvatsko-slovenačka, knjiga 2 (in Serbo-Croatian). Zagreb. p. 181.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  13. ^ Trotsky, Leon (1916). "The Big Lie: The Defence of Small Nations". Retrieved 6 November 2022.
  14. ^ Olga Popović-Obradović (1998). Parlamentarizam u Srbiji od 1903. do 1914. godine. Službeni list SRJ. p. 158. ISBN 978-8635504032.
  15. ^ Victor Roudometof (2001). Nationalism, Globalization, and Orthodoxy: The Social Origins of Ethnic Conflict in the Balkans. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 170–. ISBN 978-0313319495.
  16. ^ NIN. nedeljne informativne novine. Politika. 2004.
  17. ^ "Пијемонт". Veliki rat. National Library of Serbia.
  18. ^ Archived 12 August 2016 at the Wayback Machine Press (7 October 2011). Retrieved on 2011-11-08. (in Serbian)
  19. ^ "Šta je bila Crna ruka i ko je bio Dragutin Dimitrijević Apis". BBC News na srpskom (in Serbian (Latin script)). 2 April 2021. Retrieved 17 September 2021.
  20. ^ Vladimer Dedijer, The Road to Sarajevo
  21. ^ Kazimirović 1995, p. 653.
  22. ^ Kazimirović 1995, p. 654.
  23. ^ Zečević 2003, p. 335.


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]