A century ago today* Dragutin Dimitrijevic — better known by his code name “Apis” — was shot on the outskirts of Salonika (Thessaloniki) along with two lieutenants in his legendary Serbian terrorist organization, the Black Hand.
Not to be confused with mafia extortionists of the same name, the Black Hand was the cooler brand name of Ujedinjenje Ili Smrt — “Union or Death” in the Serbo-Croatian tongue, referring to the network’s objective of aggrandizing the small Kingdom of Serbia with their ethnic brethren who, circa the fin de siècle, still answered to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
This national aspiration would midwife the First World War.
Though it wasn’t formed as an institution until 1911** — it had its own constitution and everything — some of the Black Hand principals had entered the chessboard dramatically by conspiring in the 1903 assassination of the unpopular King Alexander Obrenovic and his consort Queen Draga. This operation is remembered as the May Coup and numbered among its leaders our very man, Apis. (English Wikipedia link| Serbian) Apis caught three bullets in the chest during the murderous palace invasion, but the hand wasn’t the only thing tough about him.
In victory, these conspirators grew into a powerful faction of a more bellicose state, the most militant exponents of Pan-Serbism — a spirit perforce directed against the Austrian polity, which called South Slavs subjects from Trieste to Montenegro. Belgrade, then as now the capital of Serbia, was at this point a border city, with the bulk of the future Yugoslavia lying to its north and west, in Austria-Hungary.
“We do not say that this war is declared yet, but we believe that it is inevitable. If Serbia wants to live in honour, she can do so only by this war,” Apis predicted to a newsman in 1912. “This war must bring about the eternal freedom of Serbia, of the South Slavs, of the Balkan peoples. Our whole race must stand together to halt the onslaught of these aliens from the north.”
-Black Hand induction oath
On the pregnant date of June 28, 1914, the Black Hand grasped at its historical destiny to redraw that noxious border when a cell of Bosnian Serbs whom Apis — a mere captain at the time of the 1903 coup, he by now commanded Serbian military intelligence — had dispatched for the purpose assassinated the Austrian heir presumptive Archduke Franz Ferdinand during his visit to the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo.
Their objective was the same as it had ever been, to avenge themselves upon their occupier. Moreover, Serbia had allied herself with Russia, and Vienna’s inevitable declaration of war over the provocation could be expected to draw Russia into a Great Power war, perhaps with the effect of shaking loose Austria’s Balkan provinces.
It did that, and it drew in the whole of Europe besides.
Apis’s assassins shattered the Habsburg empire and made possible a postwar Yugoslavian kingdom. That the Black Hand itself was one of the Great War’s casualties in the process was the littlest of ironies.
Its aggression had long placed it in a delicate relationship with the state which could never really be expected to acclimate to a permanent network of enragees looking to author wars and political murders.
By 1917 the Prime Minister Nikola Pasic saw an opening to move against Apis. Perhaps he feared resumed Black Hand subversion if Serbia negotiated a peace with Austria, or wanted to get rid of the guy who could tell exactly how much he, Pasic, knew about the Archduke’s assassination before it happened.
It was an effective ploy, no matter the reason. Alleging a bogus Black Hand plot to kill Serbia’s prince regent, a Serbian military investigation rolled up Dimitrijevic along with one of his original May Coup cronies, Ljobomir Vulovic and the alleged would-be assassin Rado Malobabic, a man who really had been involved in planning the Archduke Franz Ferdinand hit. Dimitrijevic was known to remark privately that whatever the charge sheet said, he was really being executed for that fateful day in Sarajevo.
The three condemned men stepped down into the ditches that had been dug for the purpose, and placed themselves in front of the stakes. Dimitrijevic on the right, Vulovic in the middle, and Malobabic on the left. After being blindfolded, Dimitrijevic and Vulovic cried: “Long live Greater Serbia!”
Malobabic succumbed after the first five shots, while the two others suffered longer, twenty shots having to be fired at each of them. No one was hit in the head. The execution was over at 4.47 in the morning.
* Different sources proposing numerous different dates in June and even July can be searched up on these here interwebs. We’re basing June 26 on primary reportage in the English-language press (e.g., the London Times of June 28, 1917, under a June 26 dateline: “The Serbian Prince Regent having confirmed the death sentences passed on Colonel Dragutin Dimitriovitch, Major Liubomir Vulovitch, and the volunteer Malobabitch for complicity in a plot to upset the existing regime, these were executed this morning in the outskirts of Salonika”). The sentences were confirmed on June 24, and both that date and its local Julian equivalent June 11 are among the notional death dates running around in the wild.