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