The Black Hand movement wanted Serbia to be free from Austro-Hungarian rule. The Black Hand movement was founded by Captain Dragutin Dimitrijevic, better known as ‘Apis’. Gavrilo Princip (see photo), the assassin of Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie at Sarajevo on June 28th 1914, was a member of the Black Hand movement.
‘Apis’ had led a coup d’état against the rule of King Alexander Obrenovic on May 29th 1903. Peter I Karageorgevic was brought home from exile to take the throne of Serbia. The oppressive regime of King Alexander Obrenovic was replaced by a system where government lay in the hands of parliament and where political opposition was tolerated and no one lived in fear of being imprisoned simply because of their beliefs. Courts became independent entities and a reasonably well-paid civil service ensured that the state was well administered. When compared to others in the region, Serbia could claim to be modern in both outlook and approach.
However, while Serbia’s domestic structure was being modernised, there was still much anger and concerns with regards to the external position Serbia found herself to be in. In 1804/05 and 1815, there had been uprisings against the Turks who had ruled Serbia then. Now Serbia wanted her independence from the rule of Austro-Hungary and all Serbs united in one state.
In 1903, the power of ‘Apis’ was such that he put all his own men in important positions within the army. This concerned those in the government but there was little they could do about it as ‘Apis’ seemed to epitomise classic Serb nationalist feelings and those with similar views would have rallied around ‘Apis’ if his position had been threatened. ‘Apis’ made his views clear: all Serbs to live in one state and the powers of Vienna and Turkey were to be removed entirely.
Austria-Hungary controlled Bosnia and Herzegovina and Turkey controlled Old Serbia and Macedonia. Serb nationalists considered all of these to be Serbian and that Belgrade had the right to control all of them not Vienna and Constantinople.
In Old Serbia and Macedonia, volunteers from Serbia fought alongside Serbs in these two regions who were in conflict with Bulgarians who, in 1870, had been given effective authority over the two regions. Serbia even created a secret organisation called ‘Serbian Defence’ that sent trained volunteers to help. They were ultimately successful as in 1912 and 1913, both Old Serbia and Macedonia were returned to Serbia after the Bulgarians had been defeated.
In 1876, Bosnia was given to Austria-Hungary after an agreement between the Russians and Austria-Hungary. Two years later at the Congress of Berlin, Austria-Hungary was given a mandate to govern Bosnia and Herzegovina. Serbs in Bosnia were not allowed to celebrate St. Sava’s Day, the most important of Serbia’s saints and the singing of Serbia folk songs was banned. In 1908, Austria-Hungary decided to incorporate Bosnia and Herzegovina into her empire. Serbia complained but was threatened with war if there was any attempt made to intervene. On March 31st 1909, Serbia had to issue a statement recognising the new status of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
‘Apis’ refused to accept what had happened to Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 1911, he founded ‘Union or Death’, which later became the ‘Black Hand’. This movement had two simple aims: the liberation of all Serbs under foreign rule and the creation of a Kingdom of Serbia that incorporated all Serbs. Any member of ‘Black Hand’ had to sign a form that stated that he/she was willing to give up his/her life for the movement. ‘Black Hand’ set about liasing with other known secret Serb organisations in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Terrorist action was encouraged against what ‘Black Hand’ believed were occupying forces.
In 1914, Austria-Hungary announced that she would conduct military manoeuvres in Bosnia next to the Serbian border. To ‘Apis’ and others in the ‘Black Hand’ this was interpreted as an open threat to Serbia. When it was announced that Franz Ferdinand would visit Sarajevo on June 28th, this seemed to confirm in the minds of those in ‘Black Hand’ that Serbia itself was under direct threat. June 28th was one of the most important days in the Serbian calendar as it was on this day that that Battle of Kosovo took place in 1389 when the Serbs fought to the last man against the Turks.