Thursday, 10 July 2014

The Event that Sparked World War I: Conspiracy Theories

It is difficult to be absolutely sure about when the plot to assassinate Archduke Ferdinand was hatched and whether there were others (apart from those who were tried) who were operating from behind the curtain.

It can be concluded with some certainty that many of the conspirators such as Trifko Grabez, Cvjetko Popovic, Mehmed Mehmedbasic, and at least one of the Cubrilovic brothers, Vaso, were either recruited or got involved only in the preceding few weeks or, at most, months of the assassination. The other Cubrilovic brother, Veljko, maintained throughout his trial that he had no idea about the plot and had run into Gavro and Trifko Grabez in Priboj purely by accident.

With the exception of Ilic, Mehmedbasic and Veljko Cubrilovic, all the conspirators were young (less than twenty years of age); and even these three were only in their 20s.

So, was the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand an unfortunate consequence of an amateur conspiracy hatched by schoolboys, one of the many that were being cooked up on an almost daily basis, in the fervid anti-Austrian atmosphere in Sarajevo? Was it so that a series of haphazard circumstances and chance and (above all) the cavalier attitude of the Heir-Apparent towards his own safety that led to the moment in Sarajevo on the morning of 28 June 1914, when Ferdinand’s car turned into the street named after his uncle? Or was the assassination organized by other players, in particular Serbian secret societies that had mushroomed during the Austro-Hungarian rule of Bosnia and Hercegovina?

The conspiracy theorists gain credence from the involvement of two men in the plot: Vladimir Gacinovic and Major Vojislav Tankosic.

These two men, in turn, were linked with two pro-Serbian organizations: Young Bosnians and The Black Hand. There was another Serbian ‘cultural’ organization, Narodna Odbrana (in effect a Serbian Nationalist organization, created around 1908, as a reaction to the annexation of Bosnia and Hercegovina by the Austrians) of which some of the plotters (Veljko Cubrilovic and Misko Jovanovic) were members. Narodna Odbrana was rumoured to have links with The Black Hand.

Young Bosnians

Almost all the plotters were members of the ultra radical Young Bosnian association, of which Vladimir Gacinovic was the guiding spirit. His stature among the revolutionary young Serbs was very high because of his association with BogdanZerajic who, in 1909, had attempted to assassinate general Marijan Varesanin, the predecessor of Oskar Potiorek, the hated governor of Bosnia and Hercegovina. (Zerajic fired at Varesanin from a close range five times, and missed every time.) Gacinovic, who was a friend of Zerajic, wrote several pamphlets eulogizing Zerajic, which served the twin purpose of accentuating the halo of martyrdom surrounding Zerajic (who was executed) and enhancing his own status among the young Serbs.

As we have seen in earlier postings, one of the plotters (the only one who got away) Mehmed Mehmedbasic attended ameeting in Toulouse in January 1914 in which Gacinovic spoke. The target chosen for execution in that meeting was Oskar Potiorek. Two months later, in March 1914, Danilo Ilic wrote to Mehmedbasic that Potiorek was no longer the target; the target now was Heir-Apparent himself. Since Mehmedbasic remained unconvinced the two wrote to Gacinovic who gave the go-ahead for the assassination of Archduke.

This suggests that Ilic was in touch with Gacinovic and one can then hypothesize that Gacinovic was in the know and had participated in the planning of the assassination.

But there is a problem with this hypothesis.Young Bosnians, while rigid and fervid in its beliefs, morality and code of conduct, was essentially a loose network of several secret organizations that proliferated in various towns and cities in Bosnia. The members were mostly young men of peasant background and the common thread that bound the societies together was their hatred of the Austrians. Young Bosnians had no leader although Gacinovic was the guiding spirit.

It is probable that Gacinovic gave his blessings to several assassination plots targeted at some or the other luminary of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the hope that one of it would succeed.

It is also probable that Gacinovic was only the spiritual guide of the assassins and, beyond giving his blessings, played no active role in the plotting itself.

                                                              Vladimir Gacinovic

The Black Hand

The other person who had more than just spiritual involvement in the assassination plot was Major Vojislav Tankosic. He was the one who provided the plotters with weapons and also arranged their training in shooting.

Originally from a village not very far from Gavro’s village, Tankosic was an influential figure in Komite (the volunteer Serbian army from Bosnia and Hercegovina). A small, frail man, he was reputed to be fierce and barbaric, and not just in a battle.

                                                          Major Vojislav Tankosic

Tankosic had a bodyguard by the name of Djuro Sarac, who had known Gavro Princip from Sarajevo. When Gavro arrived in Belgrade for the first time, in 1912, Sarac was there. The friendship between the two men became closer during Gavro’s stay in the city.

It was Sarac who introduced Gavro to Milan Ciganovic when Gavro arrived in Belgrade at the beginning of 1914. Who was Ciganovic? A Bosnian Serb like Gavro, Ciganovic, by that time, had become a heroic figure amongst the Komites, having awarded a gold medal for bravery in battle. Ciganovic was a close colleague of Tankosic. 

                                                               Milan Ciganovic

When Gavro met with Ciganovic, he explained what he was proposing to do (i.e. assassinate Ferdinand) and requested Ciganovic to provide him with the bombs, saying that he would find the revolver himself. Ciganovic was quiet for a while and then replied, ’we’ll see’. He further said that he would have to speak to a gentleman. That ‘gentleman’ (in the loose sense of the term) was Major Tankosic.

Ciganovic supplied Princip with the bombs warning that they were not reliable, as they exploded only after a delay of several seconds. And, as ‘Princip was poor’, he gave him a few revolvers.

Altogether, Tankosic supplied four pistols and six bombs to the plotters.

The involvement of Tankosic gave rise, over the years, to another conspiracy theory. The assassination was allegedly organized by a notorious Serbian secret society of the time, Union of Death, better known as The Black Hand.

The man who planned the assassination, according to this theory, was a close ally of major Tankosic and a senior figure in The Black Hand: Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic, nicknamed Apis.

                                                            Dragutin Dimitrijevic 

In 1914, 37 years old Apis, formally the Head of the Serbian Intelligence Service, was a formidable figure, not least because of his alleged role in the 1903 killings of the Serbian King Alexander Obrenovic and his wife, Queen Draga.

After the 1908 annexation of Bosnia and Hercegovina by the Austrians, the relationship between the Hapsburgs and Serbia had worsened. Austria gave an ultimatum to Serbia to demobilize its forces and be a good neighbour. The Serbian government capitulated. The retreat of the Serbian politicians was greatly resented by the military elites of Serbia. Since 1909, full two years before The Black Hand came into existence, rumours were rife that a secret society with Dimitrijevic at its centre would be formed. Soon after its formation The Black Hand started publishing its own newspaper, Pijemont, which was generally known as the mouthpiece of Serbian army.

It has been alleged by some historians (e.g. Luigi Albertini) that all the main conspirators of the 28 June plot were members of The Black Hand, notably Ilic and Princip. There is however no real evidence to back this up other than what an ex-member of the society, one Oskar Tartalja, told Albertini. Several different lists of the members of The Black Hand have been produced over the years; none contained the names of any of the conspirators. None of the conspirators ever admitted that he was a member of The Black Hand. It might be argued that they felt duty bound not to divulge their membership given the secretive nature of the The Black Hand and the involvement of the top Serbian army figures. That does not seem likely either. Vaso Cubrilovic, who was intimately involved in the 28 June plot and lived into a grand old age, always insisted that none them was a member of The Black Hand.

The theory that The Black Hand was behind the Archduke’s assassination received credence following the Salonika trial in 1917. Colonel Dimitrijevic and other military officials (who might have been members of The Black Hand) were charged with plotting to assassinate the Prince Regent of Serbia, Alexander.

Dimitrijevic, by this time, had fallen out of favour with Alexander, who had become the Prince Regent. He was dismissed as Chief of military Intelligence. His powerbase had begun to erode after the death of his close ally, Major Tankosic, in 1915, on the battlefield.

‘Apis’ and his ‘associates’ were arrested at the end of 1916 and stood trial in the spring of 1917 on the French-controlled Salonika front. The charge was: ‘Apis’ had planned the assassination of the Prince Regent. The consensus amongst the historians is that this was essentially a show-trial and the charges were trumped up; there had been no plot to assassinate the Prince Regent.

There were 11 defendants at the Salonika trial. One defendant died during the trial and charges were dropped. The remaining 10 were found guilty. 8 of them including ‘Apis’ were sentenced to death; the remaining two were sentenced to 15 years in prison. The Serbian high court reduced the number of death sentences to 7 and Alexander commuted four more death sentences. But there was no mercy for Apis and two of his close aides (colonel Ljuba Vulovic and Rade Malobabic, who was a Serbian spy). Dimitrijevic, Vulovic and Malobabic were executed by a firing squad (after they were made to stand by a ditch for two hours while all the charges against them were read).

One of the two who was sentenced to 15 years in prison was Mehmed Mehmedbasic who was involved in the assassination of Franz Ferdinand but had escaped trial, and, later, had fought for Komite in the First World War.

While Dimitrijevic was in prison, awaiting his trial, he put his name to a full confession that he had organized the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, in 1914. Dimitrijevic also sent pleading letters to the Price Regent and his father, Peter.

One can only speculate as to why Dimitrijevic agreed to put his signature to the confession which linked him to the assassination of the Archduke. We do not of course know, but can guess the tactics that might have been used to obtain Dimitrijevic’s ‘confession’.

The politics of the Balkans in general and Serbia in particular had become very murky during these times, pullulate as it did with intrigues, plots and subterfuge, not dissimilar to the atmosphere that prevailed in the first few years of French Revolution, when there was an intense and ruthless power struggle amongst different factions which were struggling to gain control and were ever ready to denounce and guillotine members of the rival factions. 

Prince Regent Alexander was the second son of Peter, the King of Serbia. In 1909 Alexander became the Crown Prince when his elder brother George was forced to renounce his claim to the throne after he kicked a servant to death in a fit of rage.

In the aftermath of the Second BalkanWar in which Alexander had won battle victories for Serbia, a vicious and complicated power struggle ensued as regards how Macedonia should be administered. King Peter chose to retire due to ‘ill-health’ and passed on the executive power to Alexander.

On 24 June 1914, just five days before the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, Alexander became Regent of Serbia.

Within a month of Archduke’s assassination, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which had sensed that there was Serbian involvement in the assassination, sent an ultimatum to Serbia, with a list of 10-near-impossible demands. The then Serbian prime-minister, Nicola Pasic, agreed to 9 out of 10 demands. This was still unacceptable to the Austrians who declared war against Serbia, which of course was the beginning of the destructive First World War.

As there was little doubt that at least three members of The Black Hand (Ciganovic, Dimitrijevic and Tankosic) had played a crucial role in the assassination of Franz Ferdinand (they had provided the plotters with weapons and training), The Black Hand was officially disbanded.

Alexander’s position as Prince regent was, at least to his mind and probably in reality, too, not secure. His elder brother, George (who fought in the First World War and was severely wounded), was trying to claim back his right to the throne. There was great enmity between the two brothers and rumours were rife that Alexander had even tried to poison George.

Dimitrijevic had not endeared himself with Alexander because of his haughty attitude and what Alexander saw as a lack of respect and humility towards the throne. Alexander must have been aware of the role played by Dimitrijevic in the assassination of another royalty (the Serbian King Alexander Obrenovic and his wife, Queen Draga). He had to be eliminated.

It is not beyond the realms of credulity that Dimitrijevic was removed by the cabal of Prince Regent Alexander and Prime Minister Pasic, as he was a threat to them. The charges against him were made up:  there was no assassination plot against Alexander; and, while he was incarcerated in prison, his fate sealed, a decision was probably made to offer him as the mastermind behind the assassination of Ferdinand (in which he had probably some involvement at any rate). All that was needed was obtaining Dimitrijevic's confession, which, one might assume, was obtained by methods that were not beholden to flabby concepts of liberality.

Dimitrijevic died in 1917 under a shower of machine gun bullets for an assassination he did not plot. Time, as they say, is a great equaliser. 17 years later, in 1934, Alexander would be assassinated while on a state visit to the Third French Republic by a member of Bulgarian Revolutionary organization. (This was the first political assassination filmed live, as it happened right in front of a cameraman.) After the Second World War, his family would be declared as the enemy of people by Marshal Tito’s communist Yugoslavia. In 1953 the Serbian Supreme Court would rehabilitate Dimitrijevic and his co-defendants, finding them not guilty, as there was no proof of their participation in the so-called assassination plot of Alexander.

There is no conclusive proof that The Black Hand, the secret Serbian organization, masterminded Archduke’s assassination, although there is little doubt that it supplied the plotters with the weapons and offered some of them training: Milan Ciganovic almost certainly was a Black Hand Member.

The available evidence suggests that Gavro Princip and Nedjo Cabrinovic approached Ciganovic for weapons. Did they know that Ciganovic was a Black Hand member? Or did they know him only as a prominent member of the Komite with easy access to bombs? Was the idea of assassinating Ferdinand thought up by the young Bosnian conspirators on their own, or were they approached by The Black Hand?

The account Dimitrijevic himself gave, a year after Archduke’s assassination was as follows:

One day Major Tankosic came to Dimitrijevic’s office and told him that some Young Bosnians were going to make an attempt on Archduke Ferdinand. Dimitrijevic thought that such an attempt would be impossible, as he imagined Franz Ferdinand would be well protected. At best, he thought, there might be an incident, which would be a warning to the Austrians that an attack on Serbia (which was what the Serbians feared the Austrians were planning) would be dangerous. However, so Dimitrijevic claimed, after he gave the matter some more thought, he tried to call the youths back—by this time Gavro, Grabez and Nedjo had crossed the Serbian border—via Djuro Sarac. He was too late. The perpetrators would not give up.

The above version seems more plausible that the confession Dimitrijevic signed in prison in 1917.