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Vol 2, No 21
29 May 2000
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Sam Vaknin The Black Hand
Part IV of The Union of Death, examining terrorists and freedom fighters in the Balkans
Sam Vaknin


For those who wish to read previous installments first:

Part I   Part II   Part III

I live and shall die for federalism; it is the sole salvation for the monarchy, if anything can save it.
- Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria

The Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO) was a populist organization established by intellectuals, as such groups often are, but staffed by peasants, the lumpen proletariat and dwellers of the slums formed by Macedonian refugees all over the Balkans and especially in Sofia. Its members swore allegiance on a Bible and a gun - two universally potent symbols.

By contrast, the nationalist-terrorist movement which bore the improbable name of "The Black Hand" was no such thing, being an elitist organization only members of the officer corps and government officials could join. But IMRO and the Black Hand shared an ethos and methods of operation. While IMRO sought to liberate the parts of Macedonia which were under Greek and Serb control, the Black Hand (known in Serbian as Crna Ruka and officially called Union or Death) sought to do the same for Serbs under Ottoman or Habsburg rule.

The Black Hand was the precursor of the dream of Greater Serbia.

The violent dream

But whereas IMRO, at least until 1913, did not enjoy the support of the state and its mechanisms, the Black Hand was, for a long time, the long arm of the Serbian government and the Serbian state. To the generation of post-Yugoslavia, it is a familiar story. In human affairs, the dream of a Greater Serbia is no less a recurrent nightmare than the numerable German Reichs, and Serbia erupted upon the world stage no less frequently or regularly than its northern equivalent.

Serbia, Montenegro and Russia fought a war against Turkey in an effort to capitalize on a Serb peasant revolt in Bosnia in 1875. The latter were mightily and rather inhumanly oppressed by the local Muslim nobility, an enmity has deep roots in the Balkans. It was a holy war for the protection of holy (Orthodox) mother church, and the conflict that led to the Turkish capitulation in the 1878 Treaty of San Stefano.

It was not the first time that Balkan borders were redrawn but, with the creation of Bulgaria extending all the way to Lake Ohrid, a few taboos were broken. A new state was created, Russia was introduced as a major player and the Sick Man of Europe (the Ottoman Empire) was in its death throes. It also generated a new problem: the Macedonian one.

The Treaty of Berlin sought to restore the balance, but to no avail. The inexorable germination of the nationalistic ideal had commenced. When the Treaty of Berlin placed Bosnia-Herzegovina under Austro-Hungarian administration and allowed Habsburg garrisons to camp inside Serbia, effectively severing it from Montenegro, the seeds of discontent blossomed into the evil flowers of violence.

No one cared what the local populace had to say.

The Austrian years

The Austrians brought roads, railways and modern mining, forestry and industry to this hitherto European backwater, but reversing the Ottoman infliction was no mean feat. Yet the Austrians chose to rule by division, to motivate through hate and to buy the love of their subjects rather than to earn it, befriending the Muslim landlords while pitting the Serbs against each other across a denominational divide.

This volatile state of affairs was only aggravated by the abolition, in 1881, of the Military Frontier, which brought hundreds of thousands of Serbs into the domain of an increasingly and virulently nationalistic Croatia. The Hungarians used this to their advantage by fanning Croat-Serb hostility. After all, they had a historical account to settle with the Serbs who had quashed a Hungarian rebellion not 40 years before, in 1848-9, and were rewarded with the semi-autonomous Duchy of Vojvodina, an integral part of the Kingdom of Hungary.

The Ausgleich of 1867, which had divided the loot between Austria and Hungary, deprived Vojvodina of its autonomy. The Magyars rushed back in with German and Austrian settlers and immediately embarked upon a massive campaign of forced assimilation. Thus, as Vojvodina prospered with roads, railways and large commercial farms - it was, the reader will recall, "the breadbasket of the empire" - it became more hate-riven and explosive. In the Balkans, affluence and commerce seem only to encourage envy and belligerence and neighbourly relations are no barrier to mutual slaughter.

Uprising and instability

A self-appointed "guardian of all Serbs," the Serbian state willingly engaged in agitation and confronted both other ethnicities and the Dual Monarchy in its quest to safeguard the well-being, welfare, prosperity and equal treatment of all Serbs - all noble goals, no doubt. Yet instability is contagious, a lesson not learned by Serb politicians.

Even as the Bosnian uprising was in progress, King Milan stuck an Austrian knife into its back. He agreed to not foment rebellion in Bosnia-Hercegovina in return for a free hand in Macedonia and some export concessions for some agricultural produce. In 1885, his grandiosity had a disastrous outcome, and four years later he abdicated in disgrace.

Not until 1893 was order restored in the person of King Alexander, whose most important act was marrying his concubine, Draga Masin, in 1900. They were both massacred by disgruntled officers in their own palace in June 1903 and that was the end of one dynasty (the Obrenovićs) and the beginning of another (the Karađorđevićs). It was all planned in 1901 by a young officer and member of the general staff of the army by the name of Dragutin Dimitrijević ("Apis" or the "Holy Bull" was his endearing nickname or, perhaps, the bee, from the Latin root, as Petrović, the attaché to the Serbia legation in London has it in Black Hand Over Europe by Heneri Pozzi). Remember this name, for his role in our history has only just begun.

As is usually the case, the honeymoon looked both passionate and auspicious. The new King was of the reforming kind and keen on economic progress and wealth formation. Regretfully, his implementation fell short of his intentions. Serbian agriculture lagged behind its more commercialized and industrialized competitors and the population grew relentlessly, as rural debts buried the semi-feudal rustic peasantry under its increasing burden.

State within a state

It is against this background of mounting and mercurial discontent that the "Black Hand" was formed. Attesting to the spreading of rot throughout the Karađorđević state was its cancerous metastasis through all levels of the army and the government. Apis, the killer of kings, was appointed to no less a position than chief of intelligence of the general staff. He later confessed to planning the murders of King Nicholas of Montenegro, King Constantine of Greece, the German Kaiser and King Ferdinand of Bulgaria. How much of it was Balkan delusions and how much reality is still open to debate, but the man relished death and firmly believed in its transforming and catalysing powers.

The Black Hand became a state within a state, a feat later emulated by IMRO. Those bureaucrats and politicians not already members of the shady outfit obeyed its expressed or perceived wishes out of terror, more imagined than exercised. The army was entirely in thrall. Dimitrijević's accelerated advance through the ranks serves as proof of the growing influence of his cankerous outfit. He became a professor of tactics at the Military Academy, where he taught subversion and terror more than military strategy and, by 1913, as we have noted, he was chief of intelligence. In 1916, at the age of 40, he was promoted to colonel.

Though formally established only in 1911, the Black Hand had cast its shadow long before. It engaged mostly in propaganda and in the seeding of armed bands in Macedonia prior to the two Balkan wars, and its biggest achievement was probably the inception of numerous revolutionary cells among the Serbs of Bosnia.

The longer and more thorough the meddling, the more the languid relationship between Austria and Serbia deteriorated. The former imposed tariffs on the exports of the latter in an aptly named Pig War and, as Serb subversion intensified in Bosnia, Austria annexed it and Hercegovina outright, discarding the pretence of autonomy it had maintained.


Stymied on one border, the Serbs reverted to another. The Illinden uprising ignited the Slav imagination, as Serbia had long hungered after its slice of a dismembered Macedonia and Thrace in a banquet attended by both Bulgaria and Greece. But the fresh atrocities, not devoid of religious and ethnic dimensions, endowed the whole endeavour with the aura of a holy war. This delirium was further stoked by the apparent disintegration of the Ottoman Empire following the revolution of the Young Turks in 1908. Yet in its drang nach Süden, Serbia found itself once more entangled with the Austrians, who had their own designs on Macedonia and Novi Pazar.

The risk of losing Kosovo and Metohija was very real and the conflict assumed the robes of a crusade, both cultural and religious. To the Serbs, the very maintenance of their self-identity and civilization appeared to be at stake.

This was the background to the onslaught of the Balkan Wars. Serbia collaborated with the more potent of its potential enemies, Greece and Bulgaria, in the Balkan League, with cleansing the Balkans of all Turks as the explicit goals of hush-hush treaties and clandestine encounters - the hidden agenda bespoke of Austria. The initial triumphs against the Turkish army, reversing a trend three centuries-old, lent an air of inevitable invincibility and divine justice to the whole endeavour.

It is interesting to mention that it was little Montenegro which was the first to declare war in almost all Balkan conflicts, though whether this owes to their role as Serbian proxies or has to do with a "contentious Montenegrin nature" remains unclear. Whatever the case may be, a second war among the winners of the first left Serbia with its agenda fulfilled and with its territory almost doubled. It gained part of the Sandžak, all of Kosovo and Metohija and the bulk of Macedonia. Its tax paying population thus increased by half in less than two years.

Had it not been for Austria's minacious insistence, Albania would have never been born on Serb occupied territory. The creation of this Albanian state, artificial in Serb eyes, ensured that Serbia, alone of all the victors, was deprived of an outlet to the sea - giving it another cause for paranoid delusions and a deepening sense of victimization at the hands of vast conspiracies. Relegated to the geopolitical sidelines, denuded of their conquests and coerced by a Big Power, the Serbs felt humiliated, stabbed in the back, discriminated against, inferior and wrathful.

Death of an archduke

Frustration breeds aggression, we are taught, and this true lesson was never more oft-repeated than in the Balkans. The raging rivalry between an eastward-bound Austria and a defiant Serbia was bound to boil over, and the Black Hand was there to provoke the parties into a final test of strengths and willpower.

Dame Rebecca West has voiced her doubts regarding the true intent of the Black Handers in their involvement, which she does not dispute, in the events that followed. Based on all manner of circumstantial evidence and the testimonies of mysterious friends of furtive conspirators, she reaches the conclusion that they did not believe in the conspiracy to which they lent their support. The Black Hand went along with the planning and execution of the assassination of Archduke, heir to the throne Franz (Francis) Ferdinand in 1914, never quite believing in the skills or the commitment of the youthful, would be assassins.

Perhaps so. Yet there can be little doubt -and, indeed, there is no dispute- that the Black Hand was introduced to a cabal of plotters called "Mlada Bosna" (Young Bosnia), headed by one Illich, and that this introduction was effected by the 22 year-old influential Bosnian revolutionary Gačinović, who lived in Lausanne Switzerland.

The Black Hander Ciganović made contact with one Gavrilo Princip, Čabrinović and another Bosnian, Tankosić. The latter, a self-proclaimed sharpshooter, immediately set about testing the sniping skills of his co-schemers in a secluded wood. With the mild exception of Princip, they were no good.

Despite this disheartening display of incompetence - Princip claimed at his trial to have aimed at a general sitting next to the Archduke - the Black Hand equipped them with bombs (of the wrong kind, West correctly notes), pistols and suicidal prussic acid (which didn't work). They were smuggled to Sarajevo by two collaborating border guards. Contrary to popular rumours, Gavrilo Princip was not a member of the Black Hand, nor was the Black Hand involved in his training. Moreover, the connection between Mlada Bosna and Crna Ruka, the Black Hand, was made only a short time before the eventful 28 June, 1914.

It was a challenge, and on Serbia's national day at that. The Austrians were elated over having been handed the excuse to educate Serbia and cut it to size: they issued an ultimatum and the rest is the history of the first truly global conflict, the First World War.

Sudden end

In a surprising turn of events in 1917, Alexander, the Commander-in-Chief of the Expatriate Serbian Army, in collusion with the Serb premier, Nikola Pasić, arrested Apis and 200 of his collaborators, thus irreversibly shattering the Black Hand. It is always surprising how really brittle and vulnerable these apparently invincible organizations of terror are. IMRO, after having terrorized Bulgaria for decades and decimated its political elite, was reduced to rubble, bloodlessly, in a matter of a few weeks in 1934. The same happened with the seemingly omnipotent and all-pervasive Black Hand. It vanished in a whimper.

In May 1917, Dragutin Dimitrijević (Apis) was executed together with two or six of his Black Hand colleagues. It was finally death, not union, that caught up with them. The trial was closed to the public, opaque and hurried. The King apparently believed - or claimed he did - that the prisoners conspired against his life. West testifies in her great opus Black Lamb, Grey Falcon that transcripts of the trial were banned and that it was forbidden to mention the mere historic fact either in speech or in print. The members of the Black Hand lived secretly and died mysteriously and meaninglessly.

But the Black Hand, like IMRO, was a child of the times. The Balkans was perceived to be the gate to the crumbling Ottoman Empire. The coveted prizes were not dirt poor Macedonia or Albania, but rather the Balkans itself, which was seen as a stepping stone to much vaster territories, to the riches of the orient, to the exotic realms of Asia.

All of the Great Powers and would-be Great Powers engaged in the pugilistics of self-positioning. The demise of the Ottomans was imminent, and this imminence exerted subtle but verifiable pressure on all the participants in this grubby grabbing game. Additionally, in this fin de siecle, all involved felt doomed. The rumblings of counter-revolutionary Russia and the drang nach Osten of Austria were both attempts at self-redefinition and self-preservation. Perhaps this explains the outlandish and disproportionate reaction of Austria to the needling of Bosnian terrorism, as assertive minorities constituted a direct threat to the very cohesion of Empire.

And Serbia blocked the hitherto unhindered path to eastern territories, depriving Austria of Lebensraum and raison d'être. Faced with a limiting event horizon, Austria imploded unto itself like a black hole.

Struggling for a role

The driving force behind it all was really Austria and its growing existential angst. It struck a modus vivendi of mutual paralysis in the Balkan with Russia as early as 1897, lasting ten years during which only Austria and Russia stood still as the pace of history defied them both. To its horror, Austria discovered that in its pursuit of glorious and condescending isolation, it was left only with Germany as an ally, the very Germany whose Weltpolitik put it on a clear collusion course with the moribund Sublime Port.

Russia, on the other hand, at least implicitly teamed up with Britain, a rising power. The abrupt and involuntary departure of the pliable and easily corruptible Obrenovićs in Serbia bode ill to the checks and balances Austria so cultivated in its relationship with the recalcitrant Serbs. Karađorđević was much less enamoured with Austrian shenanigans.

The final nail in the ever more crowded coffin of Austrian foreign policy was hammered in 1908, when the Young Turks effectively re-opened the question of Austria's administration of Bosnia-Hercegovina. These territories were always under Turkish sovereignty, the Austrians "discovered" to growing alarm.

One solution was to annex the administered units, as Austria's Minister of Foreign affairs suggested. He further offered a trade-off: recognition of Russia's rights of passage through the Dardanelles. The Russians accepted, only to be abandoned by the Austrians in the crucial vote. Austria annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina unilaterally, but Russia was still prevented from crossing into the warm waters, its ambition and obsession. Russia learned a lesson: always back your client (Serbia), and never back down.

Elsewhere, tensions between the Great Powers were growing and eroded their capability to institute a system of efficacious self-regulation. Armed conflict erupted between Germany and France in Morocco more than once, while Britain and Germany were engaged in a naval arms race which depleted the coffers and the social cohesion of both. Italy declared war on Turkey in 1911 and even invaded the Dardanelles. Serbia and Bulgaria struck a bargain to expel the Ottomans from Europe (see above, the Balkan Wars). Thus, with the field narrowing and getting more crowded, an Austrian-Serb Armageddon was all but inevitable.

An Austrian solution

The irony of it all is that Austria presented the only viable solution to the problem of multi-ethnicity and muti-culturalism. The history of the Balkans in the 20th century can be effectively summed up in terms of the contest between the Serb and Hungarian model of co-existence and its Austrian anathema. The Serbs and Hungarians aspired to ethnically and culturally homogenous states and were willing to apply violence toward the achievement of this goal either by forced assimilation of minorities, by their expulsion or worse.

The Austrians, by contrast, proposed federalism. They envisaged a federation of politically, culturally and religiously autonomous entities. This peaceful vision constituted a direct threat on the likes of the Black Hand. Peaceful, content citizens do not good rebels make. As the Encyclopaedia Britannica says, "Such is the logic of terrorism: Its greatest enemies are the peacemakers."

The Black Hand did not operate in empty space and was not alone. In 1908 Serbia formed "The National Defence," whose main function was to agitate against the Austrians and conduct propaganda for the Serb cause. There were other organizations, but all of them were contemptuously labelled "intellectual" by Apis, who craved violence.

Ironically, one of the original band of conspirators against King Alexander in 1901 to 1903 was Petar Živković, but he soon separated himself from the Black Hand and joined the White Hand, another group of officers, more moderate, though no less authoritarian. Another King Alexander (who was also murdered, but in 1934), King of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later renamed "Yugoslavia"), appointed him Commander of the Palace Guards in 1921 and Prime Minister eight years thereafter.

Živković lost no time in disbanding all political parties and (elected) municipalities as he embarked upon an endless string of show trials of opponents of his dictatorship, the Communists and anti-monarchists, introducing a one-party, government-controlled electoral system.

Thus, in an ironic twist of history, the Black Hand came into its own after all. One of its former members became a Prime Minister, dictator, under a king installed by its slaughterous coup. Black Hand or White Hand: the means were disputed, but the ends were always in consensus. A Greater Serbia for the Greater Serbian people.

Sam Vaknin, 29 May 2000

This article is part of the Union of Death debate

The author:

The author is General Manager of Capital Markets Institute Ltd, a consultancy firm with operations in Macedonia and Russia. He is an Economic Advisor to the Government of Macedonia.

DISCLAIMER: The views presented in this article represent only the personal opinions and judgements of the author.

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