The Archduke and Arch-Conspirator Take Their Places


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 2014, 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 82nd installment in the series.

August 17, 1913: The Archduke and Arch-Conspirator Take Their Places

According to the American diplomat George F. Kennan, the First World War was the “great seminal catastrophe” of the 20th century, “the event which . . . lay at the heart of the failure and decline of this Western civilization.” But like most epochal events it was the product of general trends coinciding with a precise alignment of people and places at a certain moment in time. The broader forces behind the war included the rise of nationalism, social Darwinism, and the European arms race -- but it took the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, to set the world on fire. In mid-August 1913, the Archduke and the man who would arrange his death assumed the roles that put the wheel of fate in motion.

Franz Ferdinand (pictured) was thoroughly disliked by his uncle, the Emperor Franz Josef, and other members of the Imperial household, who were annoyed by the Archduke’s brusque manner and deeply resentful of his “morganatic” marriage to Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg (a minor aristocrat who was far beneath Franz Ferdinand in social terms, and thus legally excluded from his imperial privileges, along with their children). Many Imperial officials also feared Franz Ferdinand’s plans to accommodate Slavic nationalism by adding a third monarchy representing the Slavs to the Dual Monarchy of Austria and Hungary – or even reinventing the Empire as a federal state.

But following the deaths of Franz Josef’s son, the Crown Prince Rudolf (who committed suicide in 1889) and then his brother (Franz Ferdinand’s father) Karl Ludwig in 1896, Franz Ferdinand was the legitimate heir to the throne – and Franz Josef, motivated by feelings of responsibility to the House of Hapsburg and his subjects, did his best to get along with his cantankerous nephew and smooth the way for his succession. Therefore on August 17, 1913, the elderly Emperor appointed Franz Ferdinand inspector general of the Austro-Hungarian army, a position of real responsibility which would help prepare the heir for the role of commander-in-chief when he assumed the throne.

As inspector general, Franz Ferdinand was eager to begin familiarizing himself with the current state of the Empire’s forces and asserting his authority, especially over chief of staff Conrad von Hötzendorf, a former favorite who had fallen into disfavor with the Archduke because of his aggressive attitude towards Serbia. To put his stamp on the army (and let Hötzendorf know who was boss) Franz Ferdinand immediately began arranging to attend the next year’s army maneuvers, scheduled to take place in Bosnia in June 1914.

These maneuvers were obviously intended to intimidate the neighboring Kingdom of Serbia, which had been making so much trouble for Austria-Hungary recently – and this saber-rattling, in turn, was sure to stoke discontent among the Empire’s restive Slavic peoples, already angry about Vienna’s bullying of Serbia during the Balkan Wars; in fact on May 3, 1913 the Bosnian governor Oskar Potiorek had declared a state of emergency in the province, dissolving the local parliament, suspending civil courts, and closing Slavic cultural associations.Nonetheless it was decided that after the maneuvers the Archduke and his wife would pay a ceremonial visit to the provincial capital, Sarajevo. Security concerns were breezily dismissed. 

The Man Called “Apis”

His codename was “Apis.” Depending who you asked, the nom de guerre referred either to the bull-headed Egyptian god, an allusion to his massive physique, or the Latin word for “honeybee,” because of his unending frenetic activity – or maybe both. His real name was Dragutin Dimitrijević, a Serbian officer who by the summer of 1913 already had a reputation so terrifying even Serbian Prime Minister Nikola Pašić was afraid to cross him.

The fear was well-founded. Dimitrijević was an inveterate plotter: in 1901 he helped found the secret Serbian nationalist organization “Unity or Death,” better known as Crna ruka or “The Black Hand,” which used assassinations and terrorism to advance the cause of Serbian unity. In June 1903 the group had assassinated the previous Serbian monarch, King Alexander Obrenović, who earned the hatred of ultranationalist army officers with his submissive policy towards Austria-Hungary, the nemesis of Serbian and pan-Slav ideologues; in an act which made lurid newspaper headlines across Europe, Dimitrijević and his fellow officers supposedly hacked the royal couple to death and tossed their bodies out the palace window. Later he played kingmaker, helping install the new King Peter Karadjordjević on the throne; the king’s son, Prince Alexander, was said to be completely under the spell of the charismatic conspirator.

Dimitrijević wielded enormous power as the leader of The Black Hand, which had spies and contacts outside Serbia in Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria, as well as across Europe. And with his fanatical following among Serbian army officers, it was only natural for Apis to maneuver himself into the office of chief Serbian military intelligence, a position he won in mid-August 1913 over opposition from Serbian moderates led by Prime Minister Pašić, who hoped to reach an accommodation with Austria-Hungary.

In this new, even more powerful role the tireless Apis immediately began spinning new webs of conspiracy: one contemporary described his office as a constant hub of activity, with an unending stream of cryptic notes arriving by messenger and telephones constantly ringing in the background. One of his first projects was removing his opponent Pašić, who stood in the way of Serbia’s destiny, by parliamentary means or, if need be, another coup.  But Apis never took his eyes off the main prize, Serbian unification, or the main enemy – Austria-Hungary.

There was no shortage of potential recruits for him to work with, as demonstrated on August 18, 1913, when a Croatian house painter named Stjepan Dojcic (who apparently had no connections to The Black Hand) tried to kill Ivan Skerlecz, the Hungarian governor of Croatia. Meanwhile a Bosnian Serb teenager named Gavrilo Princip had moved to Belgrade in March 1913, supposedly to attend high school; he actually spent most of his time in grimy coffee shops, where he eventually came into contact with Dimitrijević’s right-hand man, Voja Tankosic, a guerrilla fighter recently returned from the Balkan Wars, now in charge of covert operations for Apis. 

See the previous installment or all entries.