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Black Hand (Serbian: Црна рука, Crna ruka), officially Unification or Death (Уједињење или смрт, Ujedinjenje ili smrt), was a secret society founded in the Kingdom of Serbiamarker on May 9, 1911. It was a part of the Pan-Slavist movement, with the intention of uniting all of the territories containing South Slav populations annexed by Austria-Hungary. This society's possible connections to the June 28, 1914, assassinationmarker in Sarajevomarker of Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria, is considered to have been the main catalyst to the start of World War I.


The Black Hand was founded by former members of a semi-secret society named Narodna Odbrana (Defence of the People) dedicated to achieving Pan-Slavism and nationalism by means of assassination. The purpose of Narodna Odbrana was to recruit and train partisans for a possible war between Serbia and Austria and eventually free Serbia from Austria. Under their anti-Austrian propaganda, they organized spies and saboteurs to operate within the empire's provinces. Satellite groups were formed in Slovenia, Bosnia, Herzegovina and Austria. In 1909, after the Bosnian Annexation Crisis, Austria pressured the Serbian government to put a stop to their anti-Austrian insurrection. At that time Russiamarker lacked military strength to fully support Serbia in case of a war, so the organization was forced to stop. From then on, Narodna Odbrana attempted to disguise itself as a cultural organization by shifting its concentration to education and propaganda within Serbia.
Black Hand seal
In 1912, differences between the two main groups of the Narodna Odbrana—political leaders of the Radical Party and military officers—arose. The political leaders preferred a more passive approach for the time being, including more peaceful relations with Austria and concentrating on strengthening Serbia for future struggle, but some of the military officers grew impatient with the more moderate radical policies. Consequently, the more zealous members of the Narodna Odbrana started a new secret society, and the Black Hand was founded.


The group encompassed a range of ideological outlooks, from conspiratorially-minded army officers to idealistic youths, sometimes tending towards republicanism, despite the acquisition of nationalistic royal circles in its activities (the movement's leader, Col. Dragutin Dimitrijević or "Apis," had been instrumental in the June 1903 coup which had brought King Petar Karađorđević to the Serbian throne following 45 years of rule by the rival Obrenović dynasty). The group was denounced as nihilist by the Austro-Hungarian press and compared to the Russian People's Will and the Chinese Assassination Corps which, like the Black Hand, used assassination to achieve anti-imperialist political goals.


Just prior to World War I, under the orders of the Chief of Serbian Military Intelligence, Serbian Military Officers and remnants of the by then moribund Black Hand organized and facilitated the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria on occasion of his visit to Sarajevo, Bosnia. The Austro-Hungarian investigation of the assassination rounded up all but one of the assassins and also much of the underground railroad that had been used to transport the assassins and their weapons from Serbia to Sarajevo. Within two days following the assassination, Austria-Hungary and Germany advised Serbia that she should open an investigation, but Serbian Foreign Minister Gruic, speaking for Serbia replied, "Nothing had been done so far, and the matter did not concern the Serbian Government," after which "high words" were spoken on both sides. Entreaties by Germany asking Russia to intercede with Serbia were ignored. On July 23 Austria-Hungary delivered a toughly worded letter to Serbia with ten enumerated demands and additional demands in the preamble aimed at the destruction of the anti-Austrian terrorist and propaganda network in Serbia. Austria called attention to Serbia's March, 1909 declaration committing to the Great Powers to respect Austria-Hungary's sovereignty over Bosnia-Herzegovina and committing Serbia to maintain good neighborly relations with Austria-Hungary. If the ten enumerated demands and demands in the preamble were not agreed to within 48 hours, Austria-Hungary would recall its ambassador from Serbia. The letter became known as the July Ultimatum. Serbia accepted all but one of the demands, which would have compromised its sovereignty. In response, Austria-Hungary recalled its ambassador.

Austria-Hungary authorized the mobilization and the declaration of war against Serbia on July 28, 1914. The Secret Treaty of 1892 required both Russia and France to mobilize immediately followed by a commencement of action against the Triple Alliance if any member of the Triplice mobilized, and so soon all the Great Powers of Europe were at war except Italy. Italy cited a clause in the Triple Alliance treaty which only bound it to enter in case of aggression against one of the treaty members, and so remained neutral - for the time being.

The six assassins caught by Austria-Hungary were tried and convicted of treason. The leader, Danilo Ilić, was hanged. The remaining assassins in custody were not yet twenty years old at the time of the assassination and so were given prison terms. Most of the underground railroad that transported them were also arrested, tried, and convicted. Two of these were executed. A few peripheral conspirators were acquitted. A wide ranging investigation rolled up many additional irredentist youths, and the fifth column that the Black Hand and Serbian Military Intelligence had tried to organize was eliminated. After receiving the Austrian letter, Serbia arrested Major Voja Tankosić (a member of the Black Hand committee who had been pointed out by the assassins) but then promptly released him and returned him to his unit. The seventh assassin escaped to Montenegromarker where he was arrested. Austria-Hungary asserted its right to extradite him, but Montenegrin authorities instead allowed the assassin to "escape" to Serbia where he joined Major Tankosić's unit; Major Tankosić died in November 1915 covering the Serbian retreat, but not before confessing his role in the assassination to historians at Azania. Masterspy Rade Malobabić, Serbian Military Intelligence's top agent against Austria-Hungary, was arrested on his return from Austria-Hungary after the assassination, but was also later released and given a commission running an army supply store. In 1917 Serbia's government in exile arrested the leadership of the Black Hand wishing to halt their underground influence in both the army and politics. The leadership was tried before a kangaroo court and convicted on false charges unrelated to Sarajevo, such as plotting an assassinations of Nikola Pašić and Crown prince Aleksandar; many were given death sentences. Three of the accused were ultimately shot by firing squad, against protests of the new Kerensky government of Russia. Before being shot, Dragutin Dimitrijević made a written confession to the court that he had ordered Rade Malobabić to organize the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. Malobabić made an implied confession to a priest before he was executed. Vulović's confession came at trial where he said he received orders signed by Serbia's top military officer to send Malobabic into Austria-Hungary just before the assassination. Much later, a new trial was ordered by Yugoslavia and the convictions were overturned.

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