The name fits their actions. On the surface, the Black Hand were official military personal. In the shadow of that identity, the Black Hand were a secret Serbian Nationalist military group. For years the secret society wielded an impressive amount of unofficial influence. They were well networked throughout the Balkans, dangerous, organized and powerful.
From their inception, the radical gang was comprised of officers who served in the Military Kingdom of Serbia. When they officially established themselves in 1911, many of their members were already part of another secret nationalist society led by a talented, fearless, well educated Dragutin Dimitrijević, also known as, Apis — and, “Holy Bull.” Apis would eventually use the Black Hand to commit their most infamous crime. Many scholars agree, that crime ignited World War I.
A military captain, Apis first served as a professor of tactics at the military academy; he was acutely skilled. He served as the mastermind and leader of the Black Hand throughout the gangs lifespan. The formation of the gang resulted after Apis encourage a number of his low ranked officers to align with him. He eventually lead the group to conspire against their unpopular Dynastic rulers.
It was under Apis’ leadership the officers gathered one June night by the Old Palace in Belgrade. With Apis ready to give orders, they waited in the darkness for their chance to assassinate the Serbian Royal Couple.
That night, both King Alexander I Obrenović and his wife, Queen Draga were shot down. Not long after the King’s death, the Black Hand Gang took control of the army. This did not cause much of a problem until the Austrian Empire began expanding and asserting control over Serbian territories.
The Problem Empire
Five years later in 1908, a group of Serbian ministers, officials, and generals quietly arranged to gather for a meeting in Belgrade’s City Hall. Their decision to meet was a reaction to the Austrian Empire’s brazen decision. Just two days earlier, the Empire decided to annex Bosnia and Herzegovina. The topic of discussion was how to liberate Serbs caught inside the Austro-Hungarian occupation.
The underlying problem was the Hapsburg-Empire had been inching its way into Serbian territories. Groups of Serbs who were linguistically, religiously, culturally and ethnically unified found themselves under new rule. They were captured by the Empire’s expansion. Needless to say, they were not amused by new boarders being drawn up, all of it for the purpose of enhancing the Monarchy’s wealth.
The decision was to organize and fight. At this juncture, the group recognized themselves as defenders of what they considered to the theirs. Aptly, the called themselves “National Defense.” Like the Black Hand, they were a secret group. The worked covertly to manufacture and distribute propaganda that did not support Austria. They sent spies into occupied areas. In areas not oppressed by the Empire, they set up satellite groups.
“Unification or Death!”
In only a few years, the ambitions goal to unify Serbia became the focal point of the group’s purpose. Their motto became “Unification or Death.” When Black Hand established themselves, their goal was to unify all of southern Serbia. That region was comprised of separate individual territories at the time. Many of them had no official ruler. The nearby territories of Germany and Italy recently gone through unification, which made the desired reality seem well within reach.
In organized fashion, they drafted a constitution. It was modeled on those previously written by similar nationalist German groups and those used by secret Italian societies. Other nationalist groups in the Balkans were absorbed by the Black Hand. This made them more powerful. It also demonstrated their goal for unification was becoming something of a reality.