Who started WW One?

Brief – Who Really Instigated the Plot?

There are several contradictory versions of who instigated the plot to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand and why they wanted him dead.

Who carried out the assassination – the individuals with their bombs and pistols who lined the Appel Quay – who fired the fatal shots, and who supplied the weapons are not in doubt. What is not clear is the role of the Black Hand and their leader Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijević, known as Apis (the Bull), who was also the Head of Serbian Military Intelligence.

The versions can be summarised as follows.

(1) The young Bosnian assassins themselves instigated the plot. Apis and the Black Hand were latecomers only learning of the plot and deciding to support it when approached for weapons.

In some accounts two of the assassins play the key role when in Belgrade after seeing newspaper reports – Princip in the middle of March 1914, and Čabrinović at the end of the month – about the Archduke’s visit to Sarajevo, they meet and have what might be described as a lightbulb moment. Here is a great opportunity to remove the most important Austro-Hungarian figure after the Emperor and strike a blow against Austro-Hungarian rule.

These young men and their contemporaries believed tyrannicide was justified. Austro-Hungarian rule was unjust and those who imposed it were fair targets. Terrorism was more effective than political agitation. They also believed the violent removal of leading Austro-Hungarian figures such as the Archduke would hasten the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and bring closer the achievement of their objective; the creation of a new independent country, Yugoslavia, embracing all the southern Slav territories of the Empire and including Serbia.

There can be no doubt that many young Bosnians and other Slav youth in Croatia and Dalmatia were in favour of the assassination of leading Austro-Hungarian figures, and some were willing and able to act, without encouragement or help from Apis, the Black Hand, Serbia, or anyone.

Most historians take a line close to this version of events.

(2) Apis instigated the plot when he learnt that the Archduke was to attend the Austro-Hungarian army manoeuvres in Bosnia in June 1914 and to visit Sarajevo.

The Archduke decided in September 1913 to attend the Bosnian manoeuvres and this was being talked about in Austro-Hungarian official circles in December. The public announcement was made in the middle of March 1914. As Head of Serbian Military Intelligence it is most likely that Apis knew about the manoeuvres and the Archduke’s attendance well before the public announcement.

Two reasons are given for his wish to remove the Archduke. The Archduke was a military threat. Apis believed the manoeuvres were a pretext for a surprise attack on Serbia. Serbia though victorious in the Balkan wars was militarily weak and most of its forces were in the south of the country still subduing the newly conquered territory. Removing the Archduke would remove the threat.

This was the explanation given by Apis to a fellow senior Black Hand member. However it is not convincing. The assassination of the Archduke, the Heir Apparent of the Empire, by Serb backed terrorists would more likely spur the Austro-Hungarians to military action.

The Archduke was a political threat. People believed he wanted to give the Slavs within the Empire greater political power on a par with Austrians and Hungarians. This would lessen the attraction for them of joining with Serbia and undermine the plans of many in Serbia, especially the Black Hand, which had been formed to promote the creation, using terrorism where necessary, of a Greater Serbia incorporating Bosnia and Austro-Hungarian territories with large Serb populations.

These motives especially the second also explain why in the first version of events Apis and the Black Hand were willing to support an assassination providing weapons, training, and a safe route from Belgrade back into Bosnia and Sarajevo.

This version of events springs especially from Apis’ confession during his trial in 1917 on trumped up charges that he plotted to assassinate Alexander, the Serbian Prince Regent. It also tallies with what Milan Živanović, Apis’ nephew, said to Albertini (Vol 2, p81).

(3) Independently of one another the young Bosnians and Apis decided on the assassination of the Archduke, and these two plots became one when the Bosnians in Belgrade approached a Black Hand member to obtain weapons. Both parties pursued their objectives as described in (1) and (2) above.

These versions are, of course, simplifications. Many points warrant careful expansion. One of particular importance is the composition of the Black Hand and how it operated. In Serbia, and especially Belgrade, the Black Hand was highly disciplined with procedures and joining rituals and involved mainly military people. In the Austro-Hungarian territories it was mainly composed of civilians who acted more informally. It was made up of small cells of five or so members and some individuals may not have been really aware of the Black Hand origins and objectives, just choosing to follow a like minded friend.

In addition to Apis another important man in this story is Vladimir Gaćinović, a social revolutionary writer, who inspired many young Bosnians with his essays particularly one glorifying Bogdan Zerajić who in 1910 had tried to assassinate the Governor of Bosnia Herzegovina but failed and had then shot himself. Gaćinović was the Black Hand committee member responsible for Bosnia Herzegovina. He set up cells in Vienna and Zagreb and was responsible for recruiting Ilić to run a Black Hand cell in Sarajevo.

There are facts, events – covered in the above versions – that have not been adequately explained, that point to a fourth version being the closest to the truth of what happened.

(4) The assassins instigated a plot to assassinate the Governor of Bosnia Herzegovina, General Potiorek. They did this with the knowledge and encouragement of Apis and the Black Hand. When through his military intelligence activities Apis learnt of the Archduke’s attendance at the manoeuvres and his visit to Sarajevo he passed this information to the young Bosnians either encouraging them to target the Archduke or knowing that they would.

Apis and the Black Hand were not latecomers to the plot

Albertini concludes that Apis played a vital initiating role. Unfortunately Albertini’s account is short, only some 50 pages of his 2000 page, 3 volume masterpiece, covering the entire 1914 July crisis and the reasons for it, published in English in 1952.

He draws attention to Princip’s letter written in allegorical form in case it was intercepted sent from Belgrade at Easter (12 April in 1914) to Ilić in Sarajevo explaining that he, Princip, and two others, had decided to assassinate the Archduke on the occasion of his visit to Sarajevo, that they had the necessary weapons, and that Ilić should recruit three more assassins in Sarajevo. How could such a letter in allegorical form be understood, unless the sender and recipient had previously discussed what might be in it? The seeds of the plot must have been sewn before Princip went to Belgrade, before the public announcement in the middle of March of the Archduke’s visit.

Albertini also mentions Grabež’s admission during the investigation and trial of the assassins that he and Princip discussed assassination of the Archduke before Easter and possibly before Čabrinović showed Princip the press cutting announcing the visit.

The activities of Ilić and Mehmed Mehmedbašić, one of the assassins recruited by Ilić, as reported in both Albertini and Dedijer, are of great importance.

Ilić and his Black Hand contacts

Both Ilić and Mehmedbašić were members of the Black Hand and Ilić made direct contact with leading Black Hand figures. He went to Switzerland for a short while in June 1913 to see Gaćinović, the man who had recruited him into the Black Hand. Ilić confirmed at the trial of the assassins that this journey took place though he claimed he went to Switzerland to explore the possibilities of studying pedagogy. (Dedijer, p279)

At the end of October or in the first days of November Ilić visited Colonel Popović, a senior member of the Black Hand based in Užice just inside the Serbian border and told him the youth in Bosnia were in ferment and something had to be done (Albertini, Vol 2, p79 and Dedijer, p283). It was around this time that Ilić and Princip had agreed that one of them should make an attempt on the life of Potiorek.

Ilić asked Popović what he thought of him going to talk things over with Apis in Belgrade. Popović approved this idea and provided Ilić with money and papers to get to Belgrade. He never heard anything more because Ilić returned by a different route.

If all this is true, or partly true, it is a startling fact. Accounts of the assassination of the Archduke tend to concentrate on Princip who was not only the youth who fired the fatal shots but the one who stood out at the trial for his strength of character and devotion to his cause. Ilić is often portrayed as a weaker character but here he is in 1913 with a direct line of communication to the Black Hand leadership.

It seems most likely that by November Apis knew through his duties as head of Military Intelligence and the Black Hand’s own spy network that the Archduke was going to attend the Austro-Hungarian army’s manoeuvres in Bosnia in June 1914. The decision for the Archduke to go had been taken in September 1913. The decision for the Archduke to also make a formal visit to Sarajevo the nearby capital of Bosnia was not made until the 17 February 1914, but it did not take much imagination to think such a visit was likely.

Ilić and his meetings with Mehmedbašić

Historians agree a meeting took place in January 1914 in Toulouse under the auspices or with the knowledge of, or even organised by, the Black Hand. Only a handful attended, including Mustafa Golubić, a leading young Bosnian activist who was currently enrolled at Toulouse University, which was a reason for the meeting being held there, Mehmedbašić, and Gaćinović.

Mehmedbašić told Albertini (Vol 2, p78) various possibilities were discussed including an attempt on the life of the Archduke but the meeting decided the assassination of Potiorek would have a greater affect and Mehmedbašić was chosen to carry out the attempt. Afraid of being caught in a police search while on a train on his return to Bosnia he jettisoned his weapon, a knife and poison to be used with it.

The accounts of what happened next differ. Albertini says (Vol 2, p77) according to Golubić, Mehmedbašić returned at the end of January to Stolac in Bosnia Herzegovina where he lived and a few days later went to Sarajevo where he met Ilić who told him the plan was now to assassinate the Archduke when he visited Sarajevo.

Albertini goes on (Vol 2, p78) to correct this version reporting what Mehmedbašić himself said in 1937 in reply to questions from Albertini. Some weeks after he returned from Toulouse he received a letter from Ilić asking him to meet in Mostar on an important matter. Ilić told him that the Archduke was to visit Sarajevo and the plot to kill Potiorek took second place since an attack on the Heir Apparent was far more important.

If he returned to Bosnia at the end of January, “some weeks” later implies late February or early March.

Dedijer has a third account (Dedijer, p283). According to Dedijer, Trisić, a lifelong friend of Mehmedbašić, said that Mehmedbašić on his return to Stolac found a revolver to replace the knife and poison he had jettisoned on his train journey back to Bosnia, and went to Sarajevo on the 26 March when the Governor was due to attend the installation of a new religious leader. He met Ilić who told him to postpone the attempt on Potiorek because the plan to assassinate the Archduke on his visit to Sarajevo was in full swing.

It is most unlikely that Princip and Čabrinović in Belgrade would have had their meeting at the end of March (see version 1 above), made contact with the suppliers of weapons and obtained the promise they would be supplied, Princip written his allegorical letter, and the letter have reached Ilić in Sarajevo, by the 26 March.

Dedijer also says (p303) Ilić saw Mehmedbašić a second time, in Mostar in the middle of May. This Mostar meeting in the middle of May seems to be at odds with Albertini’s account of a Mostar meeting “some weeks” after Mehmedbašić’s return from Toulouse. It might be that the “some weeks” were really more like two months in which case Ilić did not see Mehmedbašić before the Princip and Čabrinović Belgrade meeting, or in 1937, 23 years after the event, Mehmedbašić himself may not have been that accurate in the information he gave Albertini and compacted two meetings.

Though these accounts of Ilić’s meetings with Mehmedbašić differ they point to the very strong likelihood that Ilić was talking about a plot to assassinate the Archduke well before Princip and Čabrinović had their lightbulb moment in Belgrade and before he got Princip’s letter in allegorical form saying such a plot had been decided and weapons would be provided. And, most important, Ilić had a line of communication to top people in the Black Hand who were in a position to know the Archduke’s plans.

[See Timeline of these different accounts and other relevant events]

Another important fact differentiating this assassination plot from earlier attempts is the number of assassins. As noted there had been six attempts by discontented Austro-Hungarian Slav citizens to assassinate a senior Austro-Hungarian figure in the four years before the killings in Sarajevo, but these were all carried out by single individuals.

The Archduke’s assassination on the day involved a team of seven, Ilić who handed out the weapons – six hand grenades and four automatic pistols – and the six armed assassins he positioned along the Archduke’s route. This is a plot of a different scale to that of a lone assassin with a revolver. In conception and implementation it was well beyond the work of a lone Bosnian youth.