Bylaws of the Organization: Union or Death

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Bylaws of the Organization: Union or Death

Black Hand

Excerpt of bylaws

By: Black Hand

Date: May 9, 1911

Source: Black Hand organization, 1911

About the Author: The Black Hand, known to its members as Unification or Death, was a secret Serbian terrorist society founded in 1911 to unite all ethnic Serbs within one nation. To do so, the society aimed to destroy the empire of Austria-Hungary. By 1914, the Black Hand had grown to about 2,500 members, most of whom were army officers and government officials. The organization's greatest success came when Black Hand member Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, in an act that led to the start of World War I (1914–1917). The Black Hand collapsed following the 1917 execution of several of its leaders and the imprisonment of over 200 members by the Serbian government.


By 1903, nationalism in the Balkan countries began to rise. Serbia led the way with its dream of uniting ethnic Serbs throughout the Balkan region into a Greater Serbia. In 1908, Austria-Hungary poured cold water on this dream by annexing the provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Dominated by Germans and Hungarians, Austria-Hungary could not satisfy the grievances or contain the nationalist aims of its numerous minorities, especially the Serbs.

Officially a part of the Ottoman Empire, Bosnia and Herzegovina had been administered by Austria since 1878. The provinces had a large population of Serbians, Croatians, and Muslims, with annexation predictably outraging Serbia. The Serbian government threatened to invade Bosnia and Herzegovina to liberate the seven million or so South Slavs (Yugoslavs) from Austrian oppression, while the Serbian press proclaimed that Austria-Hungary had to be destroyed. The shrill appeals by Serbian nationalists made Austrian leaders fear that the South Slavs might press for secession. Seeing Serbia as a threat to the existence of Austria-Hungary, Austrian leaders vowed to destroy Serbia. They formed an alliance with Germany in the event of war.

Serbia, a small country, had the will but not the strength to take military action against Austria-Hungary. Instead, Serbia joined the Balkan states of Montenegro, Bulgaria, and Greece in attacking the weak Ottoman Empire. In the brief Balkan War of 1912, Serbia gained the Albanian coast and a long-desired outlet to the sea. Austria, with Germany's support, did not want Serbia to get this prize. Unable to get Russian support, Serbia was forced to surrender the territory. Austria-Hungary had twice humiliated Serbia in just a few years. To Serbian nationalists, the empire formed the main obstacle to Slavic unity.

Formed in 1911 to unite Serbs, the Black Hand terrorist organization was led by Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevi'c, chief of intelligence of the Serbian Army. Dimitrijevi'c used ritual to promote this secret society. The Black Hand initiation ceremony, designed to strengthen a new member's commitment to the cause and to foster obedience to the society's leaders, had the appearance of a sacred rite. The candidate entered a dark room in which a table stood covered with a black cloth. On the table lay a dagger, a revolver, and a crucifix. When the candidate declared his readiness to take the oath of allegiance, a masked member of the society's leadership entered the room and stood in silence. After the initiate pronounced the oath, the masked man shook his hand and departed without uttering a word.

Operating from Bulgaria, the Black Hand carried out propaganda campaigns and organized armed bands in Macedonia. It established revolutionary cells throughout Bosnia. Dominating the Serbian Army, the organization held enormous influence over the Serbian government, but it did so by terrorizing government officials.


Article 1: This organization is created for the purpose of realizing the national ideal: the union of all Serbs. Membership is open to every Serb, without distinction of sex, religion, or place of birth, and to all those who are sincerely devoted to this cause.

Article 2: This organization prefers terrorist action to intellectual propaganda, and for this reason, it must remain absolutely secret.

Article 3: The organization bears the name Ujedinjenje ili Smirt (Union or Death).

Article 4: To fulfill its purpose, the organization will do the following: 1. Exercise influence on government circles, on the various social classes, and on the entire social life of the kingdom of Serbia, which is considered the Piedmont [the Italian state that served as the nucleus for the unification of Italy] of the Serbian nation; 2. Organize revolutionary action in all territories inhabited by Serbs; 3. Beyond the frontiers of Serbia, fight with all means the enemies of the Serbian national idea; 4. Maintain amicable relations with all states, peoples, organizations, and individuals who support Serbia and the Serbia element; 5. Assist those nations and organizations that are fighting for their own national liberation and unification. . . . Article 24: Every member has a duty to recruit new members, but the member shall guarantee with his life those whom he introduces into the organization.

Article 25: Members of the organization are forbidden to know each other personally. Only members of the central committee are known to each other.

Article 26: In the organization itself, the members are designated by numbers. Only the central committee in Belgrade knows their names.

Article 27 : Members of the organization must obey absolutely the commands given to them by their superiors. Article 28: Each member has a duty to communicate to the central committee at Belgrade any information that may be of interest to the organization.

Article 29: The interests of the organization must stand above all other interests.

Article 30: On entering the organization, each member must know that he loses his own personality, that he can expect neither personal glory nor personal profit, material or moral. Consequently, any member who endeavors to exploit the organization for personal, social, or party motives, will be punished. If by his acts he harms the organization itself, his punishment will be death. Article 31: Those who enter the organization may never leave it, and no one has the authority to accept a member's resignation.

Article 32: Each member must aid the organization, with weekly contribution. If need be, the organization may procure funds through coercion....

Article 33: When the central committee of Belgrade pronounces a death sentence the only thing that matters is that the execution is carried out unfailingly. The method of execution is of little importance.

Article 34: The organization's seal is composed as follows. On the center of the seal a powerful arm holds in its hand an unfurled flag. On the flag, as a coat of arms, are a skull and crossed bones; by the side of the flag are a knife, a bomb and poison. Around, in a circle, are inscribed the following words reading from left to right: "Unification or Death," and at the base "The Supreme Central Directorate."

Article 35: On joining the organization, the recruit takes the following oath: "I (name), in becoming a member of the organization, 'Unification or Death,' do swear by the sun that shines on me, by the earth that nourishes me, by God, by the blood of my ancestors, on my honor and my life that from this moment until my death, I shall be faithful to the regulations of the organization and that I will be prepared to make any sacrifice for it. I swear before God, on my honor and on my life, that I shall carry with me to the grave the organization's secrets. May God condemn me and my comrades judge me if I violate or do not respect, consciously or not, my oath."

Belgrade, 9 May 1911


Serbian government officials knew of a Black Hand plan to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary but, perhaps fearful of the terrorists, did little to stop the murder of the heir to the Austrian throne by Black Hand member Gavrilo Princip on June 28, 1914. Franz Ferdinand had been sympathetic to the grievances of the South Slavs and favored a policy that would place the Slavs on an equal footing with Hungarians and Germans within the empire of Austria-Hungary. If such a policy succeeded, it might have soothed the feelings of the Slavs and reduced the appeal of a Greater Serbia. The Black Hand would subsequently lose support and power.

The murder of the Archduke Ferdinand set in motion the events that led to the start of World War I. On July 28, 1914, Austria declared war against Serbia. The fighting did not go well for Serbia. In 1917, Prince Alexander, leader of the expatriate Serbian Army, took advantage of the Black Hand's weakening strength to bring Dimitrijevi'c to trial. Dimitrijevi'c and two other officers were executed, while over 200 Black Hand members were imprisoned. Alexander's actions effectively killed the Black Hand.



Boghitchevitch, M.; edited by André Delpeuch; translated by Marvin Perry. Le Procès de Salonique, Juin 1917. Paris, 1927.

Web sites

Shackelford, Michael. "The Secret Serbian Terrorist Society." Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. <> (accessed June 20, 2005).