WWI Centennial: Assassins Prepare Amid Rumors of Serbian Coup

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The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in August, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 116th installment in the series.

May 7 - 8, 1914: Assassins Prepare Amid Rumors of Serbian Coup

The Serbian army’s show of defiance against its supposed civilian masters in April 1914 was the catalyst for a coup attempt organized by the head of military intelligence, Dragutin Dimitrijević (codename Apis, also the head of Crna Ruka, “Unity or Death,” otherwise known as the Black Hand—top row, left) against the government of Nikola Pašić. In May, the conspiracy gathered momentum, as the mutinous mood spread and the Black Hand newspaper Pijemont warned “bloody clashes between the army and police can be expected any minute.”

The growing tensions didn’t escape the notice of foreign observers. On May 7, 1914, the French ambassador to Serbia, Léon Descos, reported signs of dissent as well as the government’s attempts to purge Dimitrijević’s supporters through forced retirement, which only made the officers angrier: “The officers are in a ferment and hold meetings; the police keep them under observation and this irritates them. There are announcements of several resignations and placings on the retired list among the highest commands in the army. The army paper Pijemont… forecasts fresh turmoil.”

Austria-Hungary was understandably alarmed by the prospect of ultranationalist army officers seizing power in Serbia; while no great fans of Pašić, Foreign Minister Berchtold and chief of the general staff Conrad at least recognized that he was moderate compared to certain elements in the Serbian military. On May 8, 1914, the Austrian ambassador to Belgrade, Baron von Giesl, reported: 

The conflict between the government and the conspirator party (Crna Ruka)… has become so aggravated in the last few weeks that a violent clash between the two rivals for power seems not impossible… The King, who owes his throne to the conspirators, does not quite venture to side openly with them, but his sympathies belong to the Crna Ruka, as do those of the Crown Prince… I regard the possibility of violent eruptions, even of an overthrow of the Government or a coup d’etat, as not entirely inconceivable developments… unless the Government at the last moment capitulates to the military party, as it has done up to now.

In fact, that is more or less what happened: Ultimately, Dimitrijević’s coup attempt failed because King Peter moved to conciliate the officers by forcing Pašić and his cabinet to resign in early June 1914. This triggered new elections, leaving Serbia without an official government in the fateful month of July 1914.

Of course, even before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand the fall of the Serbian government was nothing for Vienna to celebrate, as Giesl warned that no matter what happened, “the determining factor in Serbia, the army, is filled with Yugoslav chauvinism and hate for Austria-Hungary and will force a nationalist-chauvinistic and anti-Austrian bias upon the policy of whatever Government there may be.” In short, Serbia would remain a thorn in the side of the Dual Monarchy no matter who was in charge.

Plotters Train in Belgrade

In May 1914, three conspirators recruited by the Black Hand—Gavrilo Princip (bottom row, left), Nedeljko Čabrinović (bottom row, center), and Trifun Grabež (bottom row, right)—started preparing for the assassination of the Archduke, who was scheduled to visit Sarajevo, the provincial capital of Bosnia, after observing Austria-Hungary’s annual military maneuvers in late June.

The aspiring assassins, all then residing in the Serbian capital Belgrade, were provided with weapons and training by Milan Ciganović (top row, right), an employee of the Serbian state railways, and associate of Major Vojislav Tankosić (top row, center), who in turn was Dimitrijević’s right-hand man in the Black Hand. At Tankosić’s order Ciganović, a veteran of the Balkan Wars, took the plotters to Topčider Park, a quiet, wooded area in Belgrade, for target practice, where Princip soon distinguished himself as the best shot.

Eventually Tankosić and Ciganović supplied the assassins with six grenades, four pistols, a map of Bosnia, cyanide pills (to commit suicide if they were about to be caught), and some money. They also arranged for them to be smuggled across the border into Bosnia by Black Hand members who were serving as officers of the frontier guard; the assassins would begin the journey to Sarajevo in late May.

Meanwhile, the Archduke was apparently having second thoughts about the visit to Bosnia: Around this time, his personal secretary recalled that Franz Ferdinand grumbled that he “would have much preferred it if the Emperor had entrusted the mission to someone else.” In fact the Archduke repeatedly tried to get his uncle, the Emperor Franz Josef to cancel the visit, but to no avail—and then he began having premonitions.

In early May, he told his nephew Karl (who would become the last emperor of Austria-Hungary in 1916): “I know I shall soon be murdered. In this desk are papers that concern you. When that happens, take them, they are for you.” Not long after, his beloved wife Sophie, also worried about the visit to Bosnia, told her friend and fellow outcast from royal society, the Countess Larisch: “It is a dangerous undertaking, and I will not leave the Archduke to face it alone.”

See the previous installment or all entries.

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