This article is written in response to Sam Vaknin's The Black Hand, part of the Union of Death debate series
Serbia and the Serbs have held the attention of the international community, large powers and, in particular, public opinion, since the very moment war began in the Balkans in 1991. Prior to that, few people were interested in either this European people or nation.
When war did break out, few in democratic Europe or the world could understand why, at the end of the twentieth century, a people in Europe would resort to force of arms to solve political problems. Answers were sought, but history is often presented with an inexhaustible list of causes that lend themselves to the vindication of earlier conclusions.
This is equally true in Serbia as elsewhere. The history of the Serbs, however interesting, has as yet not been fully demystified in Serbia, let alone abroad. Some aspects of that history are indisputable, but others remain debatable.
The history of the Black Hand, an organization whose life and activities were recently discussed by Dr Sam Vaknin in Central Europe Review, is, for the most part, clear, intelligible and established - in contrast to the manner described, and the arguments advanced, in Vaknin's narrative. Furthermore, Vaknin is factually incorrect in his portrayal of some aspects of the history of the Serbs in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The idea of a great Serbian state first came about with Ilija Garašanin and was part of the underlying visions of the Karađorđe dynasty and Miloš Obrenović, but never appeared as a political programme or movement until Draža Mihailović at the beginning of the Second World War. The point here is about a great Serbian state and not Greater Serbia, as many ahistorics tend to imprecisely claim in their writing and discussions.
This notion was completely natural at dawn of the twentieth century, even in great nations. It was a period marked by the creation of many new states, and there existed with small nations the ideas of Greater Croatia, Greater Bulgaria, Greater Albania, and so forth.
In light of this, Serbs cannot a priori be condemned, as it was natural for Serbs outside of Serbia to view Serbia as the protector of their national interests. The critical point in regard to the realization of such ideas is found in the choice of methods: the realization of national ideals cannot properly be fulfilled without recognizing other nations, and thus requires cooperation and compromise.
Upon its formation in 1911 as a secret organization, the Black Hand ("Union or Death") clearly resembled other similar organizations of the time. However, while it was in some respects terroristic, its underlying political platform was far more serious in principle. The Black Hand pleaded unconditionally for political pluralism and parliamentarianism.
The organization's members held the belief that, because some monarchies interfered in the creation of a true parliamentary system, the physical removal of monarchs was a practical necessity. However, the Black Hand specialized in assassinating kings, and not in the removal of political opponents, and we should not speak of its right-leaning ideology but rather of its revolutionary tendencies. Even there, however, the Black Handers killed only one king.
Politically, the Black Hand was an early advocate of the notion of a greater Serbian state, but not of a Greater Serbia, and they very quickly shifted from "greater Serbianism" to extreme "Yugoslavism," as did a majority of the Serbian intelligentsia and nationalists of that time.
Thus, while "greater Serbs" wanted all Serbs to live within one state, they did not insist that that state be called Serbia or Greater Serbia. Rather, their Yugoslav idealism led them to advocate that Serbs be united in a Yugoslav state that could, furthermore, encompass all the South Slavic peoples from the Adriatic to the Black Sea.
In realizing its political goals, the Black Hand collaborated with Serbs outside of Serbia proper and had strong ties to outside militant groups. In fact, Apis' main obsession was to be the one to bring together Bulgaria, Macedonia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Croatia.
In this, part of the story of the Black Hand must be about the conspirators who prepared a statement of accounts for Turkey and Austro-Hungary, since they expected these nations would play a large role in a wider conflict - which, as history shows, is what actually came to pass.
Those belonging to the Black Hand did not live clandestinely and were not executed or put to death mysteriously - there were trials. Nor can one say that their struggle was pointless, as the Black Hand was a significant organizer of national action outside of Serbia, in both Macedonia and Bosnia.
It is clear that Apis had ties to the assassination in Sarajevo and, though him, it is probable that the Russian intelligence service did as well. There is, furthermore, evidence to suggest that if the Russian intelligence service was involved with the assassination, it was not an expression of the policy of the Russian government. In the past as now, intelligence services often run their "own" politics and agenda. Apis was tied to the Russian intelligence service, but the reader should recall that he was also a student of German military affairs, having studied in Berlin.
As an organization, the Black Hand had aspirations to rearrange the whole Balkan peninsula. To them, the feeling of Slavic unity very powerful, and they dreamt of some kind of state that would encompass the lands between the Adriatic and the Black Sea. In this, they identified the monarchy as the primary obstacle in their path. They thus engaged in preparations for the assassination of the king of Bulgaria, although this never left the planning stage.
Before continuing, a few more observations about the factual basis of Vaknin's text are necessary. First, during the 1875 uprising in Bosnia, not a single second was spent on protecting or shielding the Orthodox Church. This was a pure socialist revolt with nationalist motivations. Further, there was no semi-feudal system in Serbia during the reign of King Petar I.
Rather, Serbia was a state composed of small private landholdings. What is more, the White Hand was not a group of moderate officers, but rather an obedient group loyal to the King's court. It is true that Petar Živković was a dictator and that he banned works not only by the Communist Party - yet the works of all other political parties were similarly banned.
Here as before, though, the tendency was not greater Serbian, but rather extreme south Slavist (or Yugoslavist) and integrationist in nature. Finally, while it is true that the Black Hand was a state within a state, it was more in conflict with Nikola Pašić because it believed that Pašić led an improper national politic.
The Black Hand never was an extended hand of the government - it was, in fact, always in conflict with it. However, from 1903, they met face-to-face with a problem of international character: the end of the relations between Great Britain and the Serbian Kingdom under King Petar I.
When the British expressly demanded that all conspirators, murderers and criminals be eliminated from the army, Petar I was unable to meet their conditions. A weak former exile without domestic popularity, the last thing on Petar's agenda was the liquidation of Black Handers within the army. Although the British government would have backed away from its resolution to
At this point, a more difficult domestic problem presented itself in the form of internal conflict caused by the Radical Party, which was trying to consolidate control of the Serbian state in its own hands. The Radical Party's nationalist politics were cautious, its operations carried out with finesse in Pašić's determined and consistent manner.
However, Pačić clashed early on with the Black Hand, who held little sympathy for his methods. Contrary to some assertions, the Radicals were not traitors, but rather ran an accountable, responsible national party. There was, however, difficulty after the fall of the Autonomists (Stomostalaca) in 1906, when Regent Aleksandar, who could not tolerate Pašić, got involved in the game and sided with the Black Hand.
Conflict rapidly emerged between the emotive Aleksandar, a typical solider and Serb from Montenegro, and the self-confident, quiet, independent-minded Pačić, who had a strong disposition toward the party system and would only participate in government if he was president. However, by the time of the First World War, a new idea came to the fore: Pašić remained a Serb nationalist while Aleksandar, in 1914, very seriously accepted the Yugoslav idea in its most extreme form.
Some people view the Black Hand as a terrorist organization even though, after 1903, it did not kill anyone in Serbia. Its statutes stated that anyone who left the organization would be liquidated, yet people left and no one was killed. Furthermore, the Black Hand was composed of both civilians and military personnel, but was never a massive organization. It specialized in national(ist) action outside of Serbia and in the assassinations of kings, and it is for this reason that Aleksandar feared them. In the meantime, like the majority of Serbs, Black Handers were more apt to praise themselves than actively try to accomplish their goals.
The federalism was not a hallmark of Austro-Hungarian politics, yet Ferdinand raised it to prominence by considering the implementation of a tripartite federation under which there would have existed an Austrian, an Hungarian, and one or two Slavic units within the Empire - a very forward-looking idea at the time. Apis and the Black Hand deemed it to be a threat because, they feared, Serbs and Croats would be satisfied in certain important aspects.
The result, they believed, was that the independence of these entities would never come about, and the one or two Slavic units would have the same rights as Hungary, which was a state within a state and not a state in its own right. In that sense, Ferdinand's proposition represented a threat: Serbs might begin to accept this idea on a massive scale. By accepting this tripartitism, the Black Hand dream of Slavs united from the Adriatic to the Black Sea, or the creation of united Serb lands, would be increasingly difficult to realize.
The National Defence and the Black Hand were nearly one and the same organization, although the National Defence was legal, as Vaknin suggests, and the Black Hand was secret. However, the Black Hand operated with other organizations, not simply the National Defence.
The majority of published texts on the Black Hand are very incorrect, in particular, when placing the organization on the same level as the German Reich. The Black Hand was neither a very serious organization like similar ones in Germany, nor did Serbs overwhelmingly accept the Black Hand's methods. What is most evident is that the Black Hand was neither in the position to realize its ideas in any proportion equal to the German Reich, nor did it attempt to do so.
At that time in Serbia, a kind of parliamentary political life was taking shape as parliamentary foundations were laid. In this respect, the Black Hand was a burden because, as military personnel, they put pressure on local government in pursuit of radicals. The majority of people who were tied to parliamentary life did not see Apis as someone who represented an alternative. They were, however, in favour of Yugoslavia and explicitly for a parliamentary regime. In London, Mr Desimir Tošić, a reputable political analyst, was told by Slobodan Jovanović of a conversation he had had with Apis. Tošić recounts it as follows:
Slobodan Jovanović said that when he was a candidate for the neutral government in exile in Salonika (Salonika), Apis called him for a meeting in 1916 and said: "We heard that you would like to enter in government. I came here to tell you not to do that because we did not depose one king in 1903 in order for an autocratic system to come about.
Thus, although its methods were non-democratic, the Black Hand was not fully a terrorist organization. On the other hand, it must be stated that even certain people from the Black Hand were Greater Serbs, but this never came about in the form of a programme or overt political action.
As a conclusion, allow me to remind the reader of several facts and also to bring about some of my own impressions in regards to Vaknin's text.
The First World War brought about the principle of self-determination - a principle which the victorious powers adopted as the basis of their new organization of the international system. Through this principle, many countries in Europe were formed from the rubble of crushed supranational kingdoms: Austria, Hungary and in addition to the Yugoslav state. This is an elementary historical fact. Austria-Hungary crumbled from within - it was destroyed internally by the nations who lived within it. The adoption of the principle of self-determination is the key fact which shaped the post-First World War era.
Further, I do not disregard Vaknin's thesis on the appropriateness or purposefulness of rehabilitating "shared countries" in the model of the Habsburg Kingdom. Insofar as the author holds such pretensions, that is not illegitimate. Vaknin's political pretensions are clearly stated, then the reader enters the polemics and controversy involved in the project. This is legitimate, but the misuse of history for political purposes is not.
The Black Hand is a historical fact: not only does it have no relation to the VMRO (IMRO), but it also has no connection or decisive influence on the contemporary political situation in Serbia or its neighbours. In particular, it has nothing to do with the present moment. Today, the majority of the inhabitants of Serbia know only a few elementary facts about the Black Hand. The creation of stereotypes is methodologically incorrect, ungrateful and an ill-intentioned job.
Slavko Živanov, 5 June 2000
Note: The author would like to thank Dr Olga Popović, Professor of National History at the Faculty of Law of the University of Belgrade, and Desimir Tošić, a political analyst in Belgrade, for their unselfish assistance in preparing this commentary.
This article is part of the Union of Death debate