6. The Balkans Backwater Terrorists Who Changed the World
Throughout history, few things could have been more unexpected than the world-changing impact of the Serbian Black Hand. They were a small group of fanatics in a Balkans backwater of a country that few at the time knew of, fired up by nationalist grievances that few outside their homeland had ever heard of, let alone cared about. Yet, that unheralded collection of obscure malcontents set in motion a chain of events that ended up changing the world beyond all recognition.
The Serbian Black Hand was an early twentieth-century irredentist secret society, that sought to bring all Serbs together into a single country. They employed terrorist methods in a bid to free Serbs outside Serbia’s borders from Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian rule and to unify them into a Greater Serbia. Austria-Hungary was the Black Hand’s main target, and the group’s assassins would go on to murder the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914. The result was unprecedented mayhem, as the world was plunged into its greatest war until then. By the time the dust had settled, one era had ended, and another – in which we live to this day – had begun.
5. Serbia Was a “Problem” Country Long Before the Breakup of Yugoslavia
The Serbian Black Hand’s founders first came together in 1903. That year, a group of junior officers, led by then-Captain Dragutin Dimitrijevic, later known as Apis, launched a bloody coup that culminated in the murder of the Serbian king and queen. The murder of royals shocked the era’s genteel sensibilities and cemented Serbia’s status as a “problem” country. In 1908, following Austria-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, an act Serbia resented, the 1903 conspirators met with senior Serb officials to found a secret pan-Serbian organization. Its goal was to liberate Serbs living under foreign rule via a campaign of propaganda, sabotage, terrorism, and other clandestine means.
The following year, a furious Austria-Hungary forced Serbia, under threat of war, to abandon those activities. The Serbs did not stay cowed for long, however. In 1911, the Black Hand was established to resume the abandoned anti-Austro-Hungarian clandestine campaign, oversee its activities, and establish and coordinate nationalist revolutionary cells in Bosnia. The organization trained guerrillas, saboteurs, propagandists, and assassins, and sent them into the Hapsburg empire to destabilize it with terrorism and stir up nationalism and resentment among its Serbian subjects.
4. An Early Twentieth Century State Sponsor of Terrorism
In the years leading up to World War I, Serbia was a full-blown state sponsor of terrorism. The Black Hand’s leadership was composed primarily of high-ranking Serbian officials and army officers, including the country’s crown prince. The Serbian government was well informed of the group’s terrorist activities. Apis, who had led the coup that murdered the royal family in 1903, had risen to colonel in charge of Austria’s military intelligence by 1914 and was the Black Hand’s primary mover and shaker.
In 1914, he hatched a plot to send assassins to kill Austria’s successor to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. No single act of terrorism was more momentous than that assassination. It began with a comedy of errors, in which various assassins tried but failed to kill the Archduke. One threw a bomb that didn’t kill its target, then swallowed cyanide that had expired, and tried to drown himself in a river that was only inches deep. The comedy ended with an unexpected twist of fate, and the tragedy began.
3. An Unexpected Twist of Fate Transformed an Assassination Plot From a Bungled Comedy of Errors to a Global Tragedy
The Serbian Black Hand’s attempt to assassinate Austria-Hungary’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand had devolved into a farce, as would-be assassins bungled in a variety of ways. At least those who had actually tried to assassinate their target bungled. Others grew discouraged and simply walked away. The comedy of errors ended when the royal’s convertible took a wrong turn that brought it within a few feet of Gavrilo Princip, an assassin who had given up and gone to grab a bite. Taking advantage of his unexpected luck, Princip stepped up to the open vehicle and fired two shots that killed Franz Ferdinand and his wife.
The aftermath saw a Rube Goldberg chain of events, that plunged the world into war. Austria declared war on Serbia, which dragged in Russia, Serbia’s protector. That in turn dragged in Germany, Austria’s ally. France, Russia’s ally against Germany, then joined the fray, prompting Germany to invade France via Belgium. That gave Britain a more palatable justification to join as an outraged guarantor of Belgium’s violated sovereignty, in lieu of the realpolitik European balance of power considerations which would have compelled her to fight Germany anyhow.
2. The Man Who Started World War I Lived Until Its Final Year
Gavrilo Princip (1894 – 1918) was a Serb from Bosnia-Herzegovina, then a territory ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As a teenager, he was radicalized by Serbian nationalists who called for a country that unified all southern Slavs (“Yugoslavia”). So he joined an organization dedicated to freeing Slavs from Austria-Hungary’s control. Violent activism got him expelled from school in 1912, so he walked 170 miles to the Serbian capital, Belgrade, to become a guerrilla and raid across the border into Austro-Hungarian territory.
He was soon recruited by the Serbian Black Hand. They equipped and trained Princep and other terrorists, then sent them to assassinate Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June, 1914. Princip fired the fatal shots, then swallowed a cyanide pill immediately after. However, it had expired, and he was captured. He was tried and convicted, but was only nineteen years old at the time – twenty-seven days short of the twenty-year-old minimum age under Austro-Hungarian law for the death penalty. So he received the maximum sentence of 20 years’ imprisonment. Gavrilo Princip contracted tuberculosis in prison and died on April 28, 1918, three years and ten months after sparking World War I.
1. The End of History’s Most Impactful Terrorist Group
The Serbian Black Hand’s assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand kicked off a global war in which over 70 million men were mobilized, and 10 million were killed. Four empires vanished, and the global center of power shifted from the Old World to the New. A staid age of aristocracy and traditional forms of government came to an end. It was replaced by a new fervent and fast-paced era of democracies, juxtaposed with radical ideologies and totalitarianism. The Black Hand’s bullets in Sarajevo had irrevocably changed the world.
Serbia paid a high price. It stood off an initial Austrian onslaught, but in 1915 the Germans joined and helped the Austrians overrun Serbia. One-fifth of Serbia’s population perished during the war – the highest casualty percentage suffered by any country in World War I. Serbia’s prime minister finally had enough of the Black Hand, which had grown too powerful and too meddlesome. In 1917, its leaders, including Apis, were arrested and tried on trumped-up charges for conspiracy to murder the Prince Regent. They were convicted, sentenced to death, and executed, and the group was outlawed.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading