The Union of Death
Terrorists and Freedom Fighters in the Balkans
"The Black Hand"
By: Dr. Sam Vaknin
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"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 IMRO was a populist organization established by intellectuals (as such groups often do) but staffed by peasant, lumpenproletariat 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. The nationalist-terrorist movement which bore the improbable by-name of "The Black Hand" was no such thing. It was elitist - only members of the officer corps and government officials could join. But the two shared an ethos and methods of operation. The IMRO sought to liberate the parts of Macedonia which were under Greek and Serb control - and the Black Hand (official name: "Union or Death") sought to do the same for Serbs under Ottoman or Habsburg rule. The Black Hand was the precursor of the Great Serbia dream. But whereas the 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 Serb government and the Serb 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 and regularly than its northern equivalent.
Serbia, Montenegro and Russia fought a war against Turkey in an effort to capitalize on a Serb peasants' revolt in Bosnia in 1875. The latter were mightily and rather inhumanly oppressed by the local Moslem nobility (enmity has long roots in the Balkans). It was a holy war for the protection of holy (Orthodox) mother church. It was this conflict that led to the Turkish capitulation embedded in the San Stefano Treaty of 1878. It was not the first time that Balkan borders were re-drawn 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 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 has commenced. When the Treaty 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 brought roads and railways and modern mining and forestry and industry to this hitherto European backwater. 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. They befriended the Moslem landlords and pitted the Serbs against each 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 remit 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 quashed an Hungarian rebellion not 40 years before (in 1848-9) and were awarded with the half autonomous Duchy of Vojvodina, an integral part of the Kingdom of Hungary.
The Ausgleich of 1867 (which 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 and railways and large commercial farms ("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.
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 the Serbs, all noble goals, no doubt. Yet instability is contagious, a lesson not learn by Serb politicians. Even as the Bosnian uprising was in progress, King Milan stuck an Austrian knife unto its back. He agreed to not foment rebellion in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in return for a free hand in Macedonia and some export concessions for some agricultural produce. In 1885, he acted upon his grandiosity to disastrous outcome. Four years later, he abdicated in disgrace. Not till 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 in June 1903 by disgruntled officers in their own palace and that was the end of one dynasty (the Obrenovic's) and the beginning of another (the Karadjordjevic's). A young officer, a member of the general staff of the army, by the name of Dragutin Dimitrijevic ("Apis" - the "Holy Bull" was his endearing nickname, or, perhaps, the bee, from the Latin root, as Petrovic, the attache to the Serbia legation in London has it in "Black Hand Over Europe" by Heneri Pozzi) planned it all in 1901. Remember this name, 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, the population grew relentlessly and rural debts buried the semi-feudal rustic peasantry under its increasing burden.
It is against this background of mounting and mercurial discontent that the "Black Hand" was formed. Attesting to the spreading of the rot throughout the Karadjordjevicean state, was its cancerous metastasis through all levels of the army and the government. Apis the regicide was appointed chief of intelligence of the general staff, no less. 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 the IMRO). Those bureaucrats and politicians not already members of the shady outfit, obeyed its express or perceived wishes out of terror, more imagined than exercised. The army was entirely in thrall. The accelerated advance of Dimitrijevic through the ranks serves proof of the growing influence of his cankerous outfit. He became professor of tactics at the Military Academy where he taught subversion and terror more than military strategy. By 1913, he was chief of intelligence, as we mentioned and by 1916 he was attained the rank of colonel at the age of 40.
Though formally established only in 1911- the Black Hand 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. 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". As Serb subversion intensified in Bosnia, Austria annexed it and Herzegovina outright discarding the pretence of autonomy it has maintained. Stymied in one border - the Serbs reverted to another. The Illinden uprising ignited Slav imagination. Serbia has 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 an 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 suden, 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 was at stake.
This was the background to the onslaught of the Balkan Wars.
Serbia collaborated with the more potent of its potential enemies (Greece, Bulgaria) in the Balkan League. To cleanse the Balkans of all Turks was 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. Whether as Serbian proxies or because of the contentious nature of the Montenegrins 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 Sandzak, all Kosovo and Metohija and the bulk of Macedonia. Its tax paying population increased by half as much 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 (artificial, so the Serbs felt) Albanian state deprived Serbia - alone among the victors - from access to the sea. It had another cause for paranoid delusions and deepening sense of victimization at the hands of vast conspiracies. Relegated to the geopolitical sidelines, denuded of their conquests, coerced by a Big Power, the Serbs felt humiliated, stabbed in the back, discriminated against, inferior and wrathful. 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. The Black Hand was there to provoke the parties into a final test of strengths and willpower. Dame Rebecca West voices 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, disbelieving all the way both the skills and 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 Gacinovic (Gachinovich) who lived in Lausanne in Switzerland. The Black Hander Ciganovic (Tsiganovitch) made contact with one Gavrilo Princip and Chabrinovich and together with another Bosnian, Tankosic (Tankosich). 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, points West correctly), pistols and suicidal Prussic acid (which didn't work). They were smuggled to Sarajevo by two collaborating border guards. As opposed to 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 (Black Hand) was made only a short time before the eventful June 28, 1914.
It was a challenge and on Serbia's national day at that. The Austrians were elated 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.
In 1917, in a surprising turn of events, Alexander, the Commander in Chief of the Expatriate Serbian Army in collusion with the Serb premier, Nikola Pasic, arrested Apis and 200 of his collaborators, thus shattering the Black Hand irreversibly. It is always surprising how really brittle and vulnerable these apparently invincible organizations of terror are. The 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 omnipotent and all-pervasive Black Hand. It vanished in a whimper. In May 1917, Dragutin Dimitrijevic (Apis) was executed together with 2 or 6 of his Black Hand colleagues. Finally it was 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 on 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 dies mysteriously and meaninglessly.
But the Black Hand - like the 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. It was the stepping stone and the springboard that they represented to much vaster territories, to the riches of the orient, to the exotic realms of Asia. All Big Powers and would be Big 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 participant in this grubby grabbing game. Additionally, in this fin de siecle, all involved felt doomed. The rumblings of counter-revolutionary Russia, the drang nach Osten of Austria - all were attempts at self re-definition and self-preservation. Perhaps this explains the outlandish and disproportionate reaction of Austria to the needling of Bosnian terrorism. 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'etre. Faced with a limiting event horizon, Austria imploded like a black hole, unto itself.
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. It lasted ten years in which only Austria and Russia stood still but 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, teamed up with a rising power, with Britain, at least implicitly. The abrupt and involuntary departure of the pliable and easily corruptible Obrenovic's in Serbia bode ill to the checks and balances Austria so cultivated in its relationship with the recalcitrant Serbs. Karageorgevic was much less enamoured with Austrian shenanigans. The final nail in the ever more crowded coffin of Austrian foreign policy was hammered in in 1908 when the Young Turks effectively re-opened the question of the administration of Bosnia-Herzegovina by Austria. 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), never back down.
Elsewhere, tensions between the Big 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. 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.
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 towards the achievement of this goal either by forced assimilation of minorities or by their expulsion or worse. The Austrians 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. 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". Its main function was to agitate against the Austrians and to 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 1901-3 was Petar Zivkovic (Zhivkovitch). 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. Zivkovic lost no time in disbanding all political parties and (elected) municipalities. He embarked upon an endless string of show trials of opponents of his dictatorship, communists and anti-monarchists. He introduced a one-party, government-controlled electoral system.
Thus, in an ironic twist of history, the Black Hand came
to its own, after all. One of its former members a Prime Minister, a dictator,
under a king installed by its slaughterous coup. Black Hand or White Hand
- the means disputed, the ends were always in consensus. A Great Serbia
for the Great Serbian people.
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