The Black Hand and Their Part in The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

Everyone knows it was Gavrilo Princip who assassinated Franz Ferdinand, but it is important to remember that he was by no means acting alone. The assassination could not have taken place without the help of others; namely his fellow assassins on the ground in Sarajevo, but also his fellow conspirators, back in Belgrade.

This article takes a look at the fate of each of the Young Bosnians who played their part in killing Archduke Franz Ferdinand, as well as the role the Black Hand played in the planning and organisation of the assassination.

Who Were The Black Hand?

The Black Hand (Crna ruka), also known as Unification or Death (Ujedinjenje ili smrt), was a secret military society formed in 1911 by officers in the Serbian Army. The organisation had a number of influential supporters within the Serbian government, and even had the financial backing of the Crown Prince Alexander.

The Black Hand’s main objective was the creation of a Greater Serbia by unifying all of the surrounding South Slavic states together with Serbia and Montenegro. It was an objective shared with a number of other secret and semi-secret organisations in the region, including Narodna Odbrana (National Defense), which had been formed three years earlier, following the Austro-Hungarian annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Eventually, the Black Hand almost became the terrorist wing of Narodna Odbrana, training saboteurs operating within Austro-Hungary and organising political assassinations. To ensure maximum secrecy within the society, a structure was put in place so that group members only knew the other members in their particular cell, as well as their immediate superior officer.

This structure meant that few members of the Black Hand were aware of the 10 member Executive Committee, based in Belgrade, which oversaw the society’s operations, nor that the society was led by an officer in the Serbian army, called Dragutin Dimitrijevic – more commonly known by his nickname, Apis.

Who Was Apis?

Apis was a nickname given to Dragutin Dimitrijević, as early as 1892, during his army officer training at the Belgrade Military Academy, by his fellow cadets. It was a reference to Apis, the Egyptian bull-god, due to Dimitrijević’s strong physique and abundant energy.

Although only a mid-ranking officer in the Serbian army when the Black Hand was established, Apis had become chief of the military intelligence section of the general staff by 1913. He also became one of the most important figures in the upper echelons of the secret society, and it was he who ultimately gave the order for Franz Ferdinand’s assassination.

Dimitrijević’s involvement in political assassinations actually began more than a decade earlier. Apis was central to the the assassination of Alexander I of Serbia, who was brutally murdered along with his wife, in 1903. Then, eight years later, it was Apis who plotted to kill the Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary, in 1911; although this particular royal assassination ultimately ended in failure. And by the beginning of 1914, it was Oskar Potiorek, the Governor of Bosnia and Herzegovina, who had become the latest target for Apis and the Black Hand.

However, plans had changed already by the spring of that same year, Apis had made the decision that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir presumptive to the Austrian throne, who was scheduled to visit Sarajevo in the summer on a state visit, would be a more suitable and higher profile target. And so the plotting began, which would heavily involve yet another secret society with a Pro-Serb agenda—the revolutionary organisation, Young Bosnia.

Who Were Young Bosnia?

When it was first formed, one of the main aims of Narodna Odbrana, was to set up groups with an anti-Austrian agenda in those Slavic states within the Austro-Hungarian empire, such as Bosnia, Herzegovina and Slovenia, in order to better operate within the enemy empire. The organisation that was set up inside Bosnia was called Mlada Bosna (Young Bosnia).

The pro-Serb Young Bosnia also followed a Yugoslavist ideology, where they sought a Yugoslav nation made up from South Slavs, namely Bosniaks, Croats, Serbs, Slovenes, Montenegrins, Macedonians and even Bulgarians.

While it was almost certainly Apis and the Black Hand who planned the archduke’s assassination in the Bosnian capital, on the 24th June, 1914, as well as providing the weapons and necessary training, it was ultimately members of Young Bosnia who executed that plan.

And the nine members of Young Bosnia who were involved in the assassination on that fateful day in Sarajevo, were as follows:

Danilo Ilić

As well as being a member of Mlada Bosna, Ilić was also a member of the Black Hand, and it was he who recruited the assassins.

Miško Jovanović

Although not one of the assassins himself, Jovanović was a Narodna Odbrana agent who helped the assassins by transporting and then hiding the weapons they would use.

Veljko Čubrilović

Again Čubrilović was not directly involved in the assassination, but nonetheless the Black Hand member did agree to help his younger brother, Vaso, and the rest of the assassins, with their plot.

Muhamed Mehmedbašić

Mehmedbašić was the oldest of the assassins and was lined up first along the Appel Quay. He later claimed he did not throw his bomb when the time to take action arrived, because there was a police officer nearby and he feared he might ruin the mission for his comrades.

Vaso Čubrilović

Vaso Čubrilović was the youngest of the assassins and was stationed second along the archduke’s route, but seemingly lost his nerve and failed to act when his moment arrived.

Nedeljko Čabrinović

Čabrinović, the third of the assassins, did take action, although his bravado may be explained by the fact he was already seriously ill from tuberculosis and so may have thought he was living on borrowed time. Nonetheless, when his moment arrived, he armed his bomb, by whacking it on a nearby lamppost, and then threw it at the archduke’s car. However, the bomb bounced off of the back of the motor car and ended up exploding underneath the car behind.

Čabrinović, who had failed to kill Franz Ferdinand, then failed to kill himself – the cyanide tablet he swallowed was out of date and his attempt at drowning in the shallow waters of the Miljacka river also ended in failure. Čabrinović was arrested by the police, but not before being badly beaten by members of the public.

Čabrinović’s failed assassination attempt meant that the remaining three assassins, Popović, Princip and Grabež, could only stand by and watch as the archduke’s motorcade sped past them on the way to the relative safety of the town hall.

Cvjetko Popović

A friend of Vaso’s, Popović was stationed fourth along the Appel Quay and so did not have a chance to act amid the bedlam.

Trifko Grabež

Grabež, who was a good friend of Princip, was also suffering from tuberculosis and was thus willing to give his life for the cause. However, stationed last along the Appel Quay he did not get an opportunity to strike as the motorcade passed him by and may well have thought Čabrinović’s attempt had been successful.

Gavrilo Princip

Last, but not least amongst the assassins, was Gavrilo Princip, the best marksmen amongst them, who was originally stationed 5th along the Appel Quay, between Popović and Grabež. After the motorcade had flown past him on their way to the town hall, Princip took up a different position at the entrance to Franz Josef Strasse, which he knew was the planned return route of the archduke.

And Gavrilo Princip was still there, less than half an hour later, outside Moritz Schiller’s Delicatessen, when the archduke’s car returned along the Appel Quay, only to make a wrong turn down Franz Josef Strasse. Realising the mistake, the chauffeur attempted to get the car back on to the Appel Quay, but in the process the car came to a stop, just a few metres away from where Princip was standing.

Gavrilo Princip calmly took out his pistol and fired two shots into the car, mortally wounding Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie Chotek, who both died before receiving any medical attention. Before he could take a third shot and end his own life, the pistol was wrestled away from him and he was then set upon by the crowd, before he was eventually arrested by the police.

The Sarajevo Trial and Sentencing

Princip and Čabrinović both managed to resist giving up their fellow conspirators, despite some heavy interrogation by the police. However, Danilo Ilić was soon brought in for questioning on a routine check, and he did eventually buckle under pressure, telling the police who else had been involved in the assassination.

Front row from left to right: Trifko Grabež, Nedeljko Čabrinović, Gavrilo Princip, Danilo Ilić, Miško Jovanović

The resulting Sarajevo Trial took place in October 1914 and all nine of the conspirators were found guilty, although Mehmedbašić had managed to escape into Montenegro, before then being smuggled into Serbia.

The remaining eight conspirators were given the maximum sentence allowed under Habsburg Law. This meant the death penalty for those of them who were over twenty at the time of the crime, namely Ilić, Jovanović and Veljko Čubrilović, who were all executed at the Sarajevo barracks on February 3rd 1915.

From the remaining conspirators, who were all under twenty years of age, Princip, Čabrinović, and Grabež all received the maximum penalty of twenty years imprisonment, while Čubrilović got 16 years and Popović 13 years.

Front row from left to right: Nedeljko Čabrinović, Danilo Ilić, Gavrilo Princip

Princip, Čabrinović, and Grabež all died of tuberculosis while in prison, but Cvjetko Popović andVaso Čubrilović lived long lives;Popović dying in 1980, aged 84, andČubrilović dying in 1990, aged 93.

The Dissolvement of the Black Hand

But what of the Black Hand? Were they ever brought to task over their involvement in the assassination? Well, at the time of the trial, the Austrian authorities were desperate to find a direct link to the Black Hand, and ultimately to Serbia, but none of the accused were willing to give them up as being the organisation behind the assassination.

Instead, the Austrian police managed to round up several Black Hand members in the aftermath of the assassination who, having gone through heavy interrogation by the authorities, stated that it was in factDragutin Dimitrijević, along with other prominent Black Hand members, Voja Tankosić and Milan Ciganović, who had masterminded the plot to kill the archduke.

However, it was not until the Salonika Trial of 1916 to 1917, some two and a half years after the events in Sarajevo, that Apis would finally admit his guilt. Dimitrijević was up in front of a Serbian Court for treason, on the trumped up charges of plotting to kill Alexander I of Yugoslavia, a charge he was almost certainly innocent of. However, during that trial Apis did admit to ordering the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, on behalf of the Black Hand.

TheSalonika Trial was most likely a means for the then Regent Alexander and Prime Minister Pašić to rid themselves of the military clique headed by Apis, who most definitely posed a political threat to them. Indeed, Dimitrijević and his codefendants were all posthumously retried and found not guilty by the Supreme Court of Serbia, in 1953.

Nevertheless, during the trial,Apis and three other defendants confessed to playing a part in Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, and as a resultDimitrijević was executed by a firing squad on June 26, 1917—and what was left of the Black Hand died with him.

It is worth noting that one of those three other defendants was a certain Muhamed Mehmedbašić, who escaped the death penalty at theSalonika Trial, and was instead sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment. However,Mehmedbašić’s sentence was eventually commuted and he managed to get an early release from prison, in 1919.

Why not check out The Black Hand – PowerPoint Lesson with Speaker Notes

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The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand WebQuest
The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand


The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand WebQuest Student Version is a 5-page teaching resource consisting of a webquest which covers the main immediate cause of World War One, namely the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

The webquest comprises of 5 worksheets, which contain 24 questions, as well as 4 jigsaw puzzles (with secret watermarks) and an online quiz (requiring a pass of 70% to reveal a secret phrase).