The Black Hand, an underground nationalist organization whose official name was Union or Death, was founded in 1911 in Belgrade by a group of Serbian officers and civilians. The officers, who formed the nucleus of the organization, had become increasingly impatient with the Serbian government's cautious approach to the Serbian national question. They were especially dissatisfied with the government's acceptance of Austria-Hungary's annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (1908), after which it curbed its nationalist activities in the province by reducing its military presence, hindering the formation of irregular military groups, and restraining the activities of subversive nationalist organizations. The idea of forming a secret organization to carry out the struggle for national liberation and unification more vigorously had existed among Serbian officers since 1909. However, not until Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijević-Apis joined their ranks was it realized. The group was prodded by the increasing power enjoyed by the Serbian military since playing a central role in dethroning the Obrenović dynasty in 1903, which cleared the way for the current government, led by Prime Minister Nikola Pašić to come to power.
The organization was headed by a central committee of eleven members. Its primary aims, as articulated in its constitution, involved fighting for the national liberation of all Serbs living under the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires and their unification into a single Serbian kingdom. They identified as Serbian provinces Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Old Serbia, Macedonia, Croatia, Slavonia, Vojvodina, and Primorje. While uniting Serbs into a single state was a goal that Serbian civilian and military leaders shared, the military was willing to risk war to realize its goals, whereas the civilian government was more cautious. Members of the Black Hand vowed to fight outside Serbian borders with all means necessary against all enemies. They proclaimed themselves opposed to both the government and the opposition. The organization was militaristic, symbolized by a hand holding a black flag with a skull and crossbones in front of which stood a knife, a bomb, and poisonous berries. The activities of the organization were highly secretive. All members received numbers as aliases and had to communicate orally. The Black Hand organized an underground revolutionary network, sometimes infiltrating older organizations, to carry out acts of agitation, including propaganda and the formation of armed bands. As Chief of Intelligence of the Serbian General Staff, Dimitrijević also relied on his own network of agents within the army.
The Black Hand is most famous for its role in the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand on 28 June 1914 in Sarajevo, which sparked a series of events that led to the outbreak of the First World War. Six young Bosnian men, of whom Gavrilo Princip is best known, carried out the assassination in an effort to eliminate what they deemed to be a major obstacle to the union of Bosnia-Herzegovina to Serbia. Extensive debate has surrounded the establishment of responsibility for the assassination. The Austro-Hungarian government was convinced that the young students had acted under direct orders from Black Hand officers, who in turn had received orders from the Serbian government. The limited existing evidence suggests that it was Princip and his collaborators who sought out Dimitrijević's help. After meeting in Belgrade in May 1914, Dimitrijević provided them with pistols and bombs from an official army arsenal and made arrangements to smuggle the youths back to Bosnia. Dimitrijević acted without the consent of the organization's central committee, which ordered him to halt the plan when it learned of his actions. More poignant has been the question of Prime Minister Pašić's involvement in the plot. While evidence suggests that he knew of some unspecified action and that Serbian officials had helped students cross the border, it does not support a direct link between him and the assassins. In fact, he attempted to warn the Austro-Hungarian government through his representative in Vienna, but to no avail.
The Black Hand dissolved in 1917 when Dimitrijević was executed after having been found guilty of treason in the Salonica trial. Premier Pašić and Prince Regent Alexander used these proceedings to eliminate this long-standing military source of dissension by fabricating charges that Dimitrijević and a group of co-conspirators were plotting a mutiny in the army and the assassination of the Prince Regent. The Prince Regent tried to give the impression that Dimitrijević was executed principally because of his involvement in the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand. Some scholars have postulated that his motive was to reach a separate peace with Austria-Hungary. However, this has never been proven.
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Jovana L. KneŽeviĆ