Franz Ferdinand leaving City Hall, Sarajevo before assassinationLet one historic myth be put immediately to the sword. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 did not start the First World War. Of itself, the fateful slaying of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian crown was a great crime that did indeed cry out for vengeance, but the hand that pulled the trigger had no knowledge of what lay behind the assistance his band of brothers had been given, or how the act would be misrepresented and manipulated into a universal disaster. Assassinations and politically motivated slayings were not uncommon in that troubled time, with Kings and Queens, aristocracy, political opponents and religious leaders falling victims to usurpers, murderers and zealots with astonishing regularity. It was an age of assassins. What made the death of Archduke Ferdinand different from any other was that the event was assisted by the secret cabal in London, well removed from the heat of the Balkans.

The men who comprised the Secret Elite had previously failed to find their spark for the international conflagration through the Balkan wars of 1912-13 because Germany, in the person of the Kaiser, restrained Austria-Hungary from over-reacting to Serbia’s repeated and deliberate provocation. Indeed, the Dual Monarchy was concerned that the German Ambassador in Belgrade in 1914 was decidedly pro-Serb, and had influenced the Kaiser to take a comparatively benign attitude towards the Serbian cause. [1] Yet it was clear that Austria was the weak link in Germany’s protective armour. She could only absorb so much pressure from antagonistic Serbia before the integrity of the Austria- Hungarian state was destroyed. [2]

Franz Ferdinand leaving City Hall before assassinationThe war-makers required an incident so violent, threatening or dangerous that Austria would be pushed over the brink. But the assassination itself failed to do so. The world was shocked, stunned and in many parts saddened by the Archduke’s death, but no one talked of war in June 1914. Immediate blame was pointed at the pan-Serb movement, though the implication of revolutionary elements from Bosnia-Herzegovina was not ruled out. The Serbian minister in Vienna denounced the assassination as ‘a mad act of fanatical and political agitators’ [3] as if to suggest that it had been a dastardly and ill-timed mischance.

It was not. In fact the process of bringing about the assassination had been exceptionally well constructed. Austria-Hungary was aware of the external dangers that lay across the Serbian border. Its military intelligence had intercepted and deciphered a large number of diplomatic telegrams that detailed Russian involvement with several activist groups. [4] They knew that the Russian Ambassador in Belgrade, Nicolai Hartwig, was manipulating the Serbian Government to destabilise the region. They knew that Hartwig was in control of the internal politics of Serbia. They knew of his links back to the Russian foreign minister Sazonov in St Petersburg, and to the Paris-based warmongers, Isvolsky and Poincare, but like everyone else, they were not aware of the real power centred in London. No-one was.

The Secret Elite in London funded and supported both the Russian Ambassador in Paris and the French prime minister himself. They influenced the Russian foreign minister in St Petersburg, but kept a very low profile in such matters. Their work had to be undertaken in great secrecy. The links in the chain of command from London went further, deeper and more sinister when extended from Hartwig into the Serbian military, their intelligence service, and the quasi-independent nationalist society, Black Hand. And deeper yet, into the young Bosnian political activists who were willing to pull the trigger in Sarajevo – students whose ideas on socialism and reform were influenced by revolutionaries like Trotsky. As each level in the web of culpability extended away from the main Secret Elite chain of command, precise control became less immediate. Sazonov in St Petersburg considered that Hartwig in Belgrade was ‘carried away occasionally by his Slavophile sympathies’ [5] but did nothing to curtail him. [6] Hartwig in turn supported and encouraged men whose prime cause he willingly shared and whose actions he could personally approve, but not at every stage, control.

Black Hand Seal and MottoNicolai Hartwig the Russian Ambassador worked in close contact with his Military Attaché, Artamanov, who had been posted to Belgrade to advise and liaise with the Serbian Army. These men were intrinsically linked to the assassinations in Sarajevo by their chosen agent, the founder and dominating figure in the Serbian Black Hand, and the most influential military officer in Serbia, Colonel Dragutin Dimitrjievic or Apis. [7] The English traveller and Balkan commentator, Edith Durham, described the Black Hand as a mafia-type society, Masonic in secret self-promotion, infiltrating the Serbian military, civil service, police and government. It produced its own newspaper, Pijemont, which preached intolerance to Austria-Hungary and ‘violent chauvinism’. It became the most dangerous of political organisms, a government within the government, responsible to none. Crimes were committed for which no-one took responsibility. The government denied any knowledge of it, yet King Petar was literally placed on the throne by these men. Efforts by responsible politicians to tackle the subversion of good government by the Black Hand, came to nothing. [8] Hartwig’s friendship and respect for Apis may be measured by his description of his group as ‘idealistic and patriotic’ [9] and there is no doubt that it suited Hartwig’s purpose to approve Apis’s promotion to Chief of Intelligence in the summer of 1913.

It is important that we clearly identify every link in the chain of intrigue that surrounded the fateful assassination in Sarajevo in June 1914. Apis was deliberately given responsibility for an intelligence organisation financed from Russia. His life’s purpose was the establishment of a Greater Serbia. He was first, foremost and always a Serb. He worked in collusion with the Russian military attaché, Artamanov, and secured a promise from him that Russia would protect Serbia should Austria attack them in the wake of his actions. [10] In other words, Russia was prepared to give Serbia a blank-cheque guarantee that whatever happened, she would stand by her. For Apis, what was required was a demonstration of Serbian self-determination that would force the issue once and for all and bring about permanent change.

The Austrian government presented the opportunity in March 1914 when they announced that Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Hapsburg dual-monarchy, would visit Sarajevo in June.  Although they had reliable information that Serbian agitators ‘in conjunction with influential Russian circles’, wished to strike a decisive blow against the Austrian Monarchy, [11] they chose to ignore it. The Secret Elite had four crucial months in which to spin their web of intrigue and catch their ultimate prize.

[1] Editorial, New York Times Current History of the European War, vol.28 (1928), issue 4, p.619.
[2] Harry Elmer Barnes, ‘Germany Not Responsible for Austria’s Actions’, New York Times Current History of the European War, vol.28 (1928), issue 4, p.621.
[3] The Times, Tuesday 30 June 1914, p.8.
[4] Editorial, New York Times Current History of the European War, vol.28 (1928), issue 4, p.619.
[5] Sidney B. Fay, Origins of the World War, vol.I, p.439.
[6] Ibid., p.27.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Edith Durham, Sarajevo Crime, pp.197–201.
[9] David MacKenzie, Apis, The Congenial Conspirator, p.275.
[10] Harry Elmer Barnes, In Quest of Truth and Justice, p.43.
[11] Friedrich von Wiesner, ‘Austria’s Life and Death Struggle Against Irredentism’, New York Times Current History of the European War, vol.28 (1928), issue 4, p.63.