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 113th installment in the series.
April 19, 1914: Serbian Government Fears Military Coup
In the spring of 1914, the chief of Serbian military intelligence, Dragutin Dimitrijević, was busily spinning several plots at once – as usual. As the head of Unity or Death, an ultranationalist cabal also known as The Black Hand, Dimitrjević (codename “Apis”) was planning the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austrian and Hungarian thrones, when he visited Sarajevo in June. Meanwhile the ambitious schemer was also trying to organize a coup against Serbia’s civilian government.
The roots of the rivalry between the Serbian military and its supposed civilian masters went back at least to 1903, when Dimitrijević had helped assassinate the previous Serbian monarch, King Alexander Obrenović, and installed a new royal dynasty led by King Peter Karadjordjević. The civilian government, led by Prime Minister Nikola Pašić, resented Dimitrijević’s power as kingmaker and feared that both King Peter and his son Prince Alexander were in thrall to the spymaster. At the same time some officers complained because Pašić refused to increase military spending.
In 1912-1913, Serbia’s victories in the First and Second Balkan Wars created new sources of conflict. Unsurprisingly ultranationalist officers bitterly opposed the civilian government’s decision to give up Albania, won by Serbian valor, under compulsion by Austria-Hungary and the other Great Powers. At the same time the conquest of Macedonia almost doubled the kingdom’s size, and before long the civilian government and army were feuding over the question of who would govern the new territory.
Tensions were further heightened by the appointment of Colonel Dušan Stefanović, who was known to oppose the Black Hand, as minister of war in January 1914. Dimitrejivić and other ultranationalist officers believed, probably correctly, that Pašić had appointed Stefanović in preparation for a purge of Black Hand sympathizers from the ranks of the Serbian army.
In this context even a minor event could serve to precipitate an open breach. The final straw was a decree promulgated in March 1914 by the interior minister, Stojan Protić, asserting civilian “priority” over the military in public observances; essentially this meant the civilians got to “go first” in processions, church ceremonies, and other civic events, which offended the officers’ prickly sense of honor.
On Easter Sunday, April 19, 1914, a leading member of the Black Hand, General Damjan Popović, openly defied the government by refusing to cede precedence to civilian administrators at the church celebration in Skopje, Macedonia. Sensing a challenge the civilian government immediately responded by forcing Popović to retire, but his colleagues – equally determined not to give in – thumbed their noses at the civilians by throwing a lavish retirement party, and then electing him president of the Serbian officers’ union. Popović returned to Belgrade and key officers conferred with Dimitrejivić behind closed doors at military headquarters; no one had to guess what the meeting was about.
Having set out to break the influence of The Black Hand, Serbia’s civilian government suddenly found itself facing the prospect of a military coup. Worse still, the opposition parties seemed to be aligning themselves with the army against the Pašić cabinet, and King Peter was also drifting towards the conspirators. Finally in May 1914 Dimitrejivić instructed army officers to overthrow the civil administration in the recently conquered Macedonian territories, which would then serve as a base for a march on Belgrade. The Black Hand newspaper Pijemont warned, “bloody clashes between the army and the police can be expected any minute,” and some officers in Kosovo prepared to wage guerrilla warfare.
But now the tide turned against Apis, as most of his fellow officers (the majority of whom were not in The Black Hand) balked at the risky, obviously unconstitutional plan, which threatened to undermine Serbia’s young democracy. Instead they advocated a constitutional approach, seeking help from King Peter to get the “priority decree” revoked and military rule firmly established in Macedonia. As a result of their complaints Pašić and his cabinet were forced to resign on June 2, which triggered elections to form a new government – leaving Serbia in a state of political flux when the great crisis burst upon the world in July 1914.