"The Constitution of the Ujedinjenje ili Smrt" (Unification or Death)
Originally compiled in May 1911
"On entering into the organization, every member must know that by joining the organization he loses his own personality; he must not expect any glory for himself, nor any personal benefit, material or moral. Consequently the member who should dare to try to exploit the organization for his personal, or class, or party interests shall be punished by death."
While many terrorist organizations may claim to have changed the course of world history, one can reasonably claim to have sparked a world war. The organization was "Unification or Death," popularly known as Black Hand, and the war it started was World War I (1914–18).
Black Hand was comprised of military officers from Serbia, a country in the complex, mountainous area of southeast Europe known as the Balkans. For hundreds of years the Turkish Ottoman Empire had ruled the region, but by the beginning of the twentieth century, the Ottoman influence had begun to fade. North of the Balkans, the Austro-Hungarian empire had designs on that corner of Europe. Meanwhile, the region's numerous ethnic groups, each speaking a different language, coexisted in an uneasy peace. Among these people were Serbs, Macedonians, Greeks, Bulgarians, Croatians, Bosnians, and Kosovars. In addition to their varied ethnic backgrounds, the people living in the Balkans also held different religious beliefs from one another. Some were Muslims (followers of the religion Islam), while others were Eastern Orthodox Christians; still others were Roman Catholics.
The Serbs in particular wanted to become a dominant power in the region. In 1908, the Austro-Hungarian empire decided to annex (join to itself) two Balkan provinces just south of its borders: Bosnia and Herzegovina (which it had been governing since 1878). Two days later, a group of Serbian military officers formed a group called Narodna Odbrana (National Defense). Its purpose was to organize fighters for a possible war. The group thought that Serbia, not Austria, should rule the two annexed provinces. Branches of this group were soon started in other areas of the Balkans.
Within a year, Narodna Odbrana had proven to be so effectively organized that the Austrian authorities insisted that the Serbian government limit the group's activities. Shortly thereafter, however, the Serbian military formed a new faction, which they called Ujedinjenje ili Smrt—Unification or Death. It soon became known as "Black Hand."
Formed by ten officers on May 9, 1911, Black Hand had grown to around two thousand members within three years. The group's goal was to create a Greater Serbia that would dominate the Balkans, using violence, sabotage, and political murder if necessary. Black Hand organized itself into small cells (chapters or groups) of three to five members who followed orders from district committees, which in turn were led by an executive committee dominated by Colonel Dragutin T. Dimitrijevic (pronounced dim-EE-tree-YAY-vich), known as Apis.
At first, Black Hand and the Serbian government were on friendly terms. In effect, Black Hand was a semisecret organization that carried out policies supported by the Serbian government. But by 1914, policy disagreements had arisen between the two. Black Hand did not care for the Serbian prime minister, Nikola Pasic. But by this time, Black Hand had its own power base; if its members did not care for an official policy, Black Hand leaders could order an assassination.
In 1914, Apis decided—evidently on his own—that assassinating incoming Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand would be a good idea. Whether he got the approval of the full Black Hand executive committee is not entirely clear, but a three-member assassination team was dispatched to meet the heir to the Austrian throne during a visit to the city of Sarajevo.
Three young Serbians from the province of Bosnia, annexed by Austria six years earlier, were recruited for the job. They were Gavrilo Princip, Nedjelko Cabrinovic, and Trifko Grabez. Later, four others were added, including three seventeen-year-old high school students.
Franz Ferdinand arrived in Sarajevo on the morning of June 28, 1914. After inspecting his troops, he and his wife, Sophie, departed by car for city hall. Their car drove along a wide avenue called Appel Quay on that warm and sunny summer morning, following the north bank of the River Miljacka.
Among the crowds lining Appel Quay were six of the seven assigned assassins. The first let the archduke's car pass without doing anything. The second threw a bomb at the archduke's car. The Austrian nobleman saw it coming and batted it away. The bomb clattered onto the street, missing its target, and the car's driver then speeded away. Next, the bomber swallowed a poisonous pill and jumped into the car, trying to steer it into the river and drown its passengers. This attempt also failed. The pill was old and had lost its effectiveness, and the river was just a few inches deep. This would-be assassin eventually was seized by the crowd and arrested.
Having reached city hall, Ferdinand was furious at the breakdown in security. But after the mayor's speech—the mayor completely ignored the incident, perhaps unaware of the commotion—the tour continued. There was a hitch, however; the driver was confused about the route.
As a result of the confusion, the driver stopped the car in front of a food store. One of the intended assassins, Gavrilo Princip, had stepped in for a sandwich. Coming out onto the street, and seeing Ferdinand's car directly in front of him, Princip fired two shots. He hit the archduke with one, and the archduke's wife with the other.
Almost instantly, the car left for the governor's palace. Both Ferdinand and his wife were still sitting up, and it was not immediately obvious that they had been shot. But they had been. A stream of blood shot from the archduke's mouth, the result of a neck wound. His wife learned toward him and asked what was the matter, then sank in her seat; she had been wounded in the abdomen.
"Sophie, dear!" Ferdinand shouted, "Sophie, dear! Don't die! Stay alive for our children!" But it was too late; she was dead by the time the car reached the governor's palace. The archduke died shortly thereafter.
The next six weeks were a diplomatic catastrophe. Austria decided to crack down on Serbia's ambitions, Russia joined with Serbia, Germany allied with Austria, and so on. Within a few weeks one of the deadliest and most destructive wars in history had begun. Black Hand's role in starting World War I was not recognized for many years; there is little doubt, however, that its act of terror pushed Europe into war.
Things to remember while reading "The Constitution of the Ujedinjenje ili Smrt" (Unification or Death):
- Black Hand was designed as a semisecret organization to carry out Serbian government policies undercover. It also was comprised mostly of that country's military officers. The manner in which it was set up reflects both aspects of its origins.
- The group's formal name—Unification or Death—refers to the unification of Serbia into a "Greater Serbia," dominant over the Balkans. Its initiation ceremony was scripted to be similar to a religious ritual. A candidate declared he was ready to commit himself to the cause, after which a masked member silently entered the room. Standing before a table covered by a black cloth with a dagger, crucifix (cross), and revolver on it, the new member recited the oath (see Article 35 below), after which the established member shook the candidate's hand and left the room—all without saying anything.
- Although Black Hand was officially a secret organization, leaders in the Serbian government of 1914 supported its leaders and its policies. In many respects, Black Hand served as an underground group that would carry out government policies, such as spying, for which the government could then deny responsibility. In August 1914, this plan not did work as planned: Serbia was held fully responsible for the assassination of its heir apparent.
"The Constitution of the Ujedinjenje ili Smrt" (Unification or Death)
I. Purpose and Name
Article 1. For the purpose of realizing the national ideals—the Unification of Serbdom—an organization is hereby created, whose members may be any Serbian irrespective of sex, religion, place or birth, as well as anybody else who will sincerely serve this idea.
Article 2. The organization gives priority to the revolutionary struggle rather than relies on cultural striving, therefore its institution is an absolutely secret one for wider circles.
Article 3. The organization bears the name: Ujedinjenje ili Smrt.
Article 4. In order to carry into effect its task the organization will do the following things:
1. Following the character of its raison d'etre it will exercise its influence over all the official factors in Serbia—which is the Piedmont of Serbdom—as also over all the strata of the State and over the entire social life in it;
2. It will carry out a revolutionary organization in all the territories where Serbians are living;
3. Beyond the frontiers, it will fight with all means against all enemies of this idea;
4. It will maintain friendly relations with all the States, nations, organizations, and individual persons who sympathize with Serbia and the Serbian race;
5. It will give every assistance to those nations and organizations who are fighting for their own national liberation and unification.
II. Official Departments of the Organization
Article 5. The supreme authority is vested in the Supreme Central Directorate with its headquarters at Belgrade. Its duty will be to see that the resolutions are carried into effect.
Article 6. The number of members of the Supreme Central Directorate is unlimited—but in principle it should be kept as low as possible.
Article 7. The Supreme Central Directorate shall include, in addition to the members from the Kingdom of Serbia, one accredited delegate from each of the organizations of all the Serbian regions: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Old Serbia and Macedonia, Croatia, Slovenia and Symria (Srem),Voyvodina, Sea-coasts.
Article 9. The duty of each individual Provincial Directorate will be to carry out the principles of the organization within the respective territories of each Serbian region outside the frontiers of the Kingdom of Serbia. The Provincial Directorate will be the supreme authority of the organization within its own territory.
Article 10. The subdivisions of the organization into District Directorates and other units of authority shall be established by the By-Laws of the organization which shall be laid down, and if need be, from time to time amended and amplified by the Supreme Central Directorate.
Article 11. Each Directorate shall elect, from amongst its own members, its President, Secretary and Treasurer.
Article 12. By virtue of the nature of his work, the Secretary may act as a Deputy President. In order that he may devote himself entirely to the work of the organization, the Secretary's salary and expenses shall be provided by the Supreme Central Directorate.
Article 13. The positions of President and Treasurer shall be un-salaried.
Article 14. All official business questions of the organization shall be decided in the sessions of the Supreme Central Directorate by a majority of votes.
Article 15. For the execution of such decisions of the organization, the absolute executive power shall be vested in the President and the Secretary.
Article 16. In exceptional and less important cases the President and the Secretary shall make the decisions and secure their execution,
but they shall report accordingly at the next following session of the Supreme Central Directorate.
Article 17. For the purpose of ensuring a more efficient discharge of business, the Supreme Central Directorate shall be divided into sections, according to the nature of the work.
Article 18. The Supreme Central Directorate shall maintain its relations with the Provincial Directorates through the accredited delegates of the said provincial organizations, it being understood that such delegates shall be at the same time members of the Supreme Central Directorate; in exceptional cases, however, these relations shall be maintained through special delegates.
Article 19. Provincial Directorates shall have freedom of action. Only in cases of the execution of broader revolutionary movements will they depend upon the approval of the Supreme Central Directorate.
Article 20. The Supreme Central Directorate shall regulate all the signs and watchwords, necessary for the maintenance of secrecy in the organization.
Article 21. It shall be the Supreme Central Directorate's duty punctually and officially to keep all the members of the organization well posted about all the more important questions relative to the organization.
Article 22. The Supreme Central Directorate shall from time to time control and inspect the work of its own departments. Analogically, the other Directorates shall do likewise with their own departments.
III. The Members of the Organization
Article 23. The following rule, as a principle, shall govern all the detailed transactions of the organization: All communications and conversations to be conducted only through specially appointed and authorized persons.
Article 24. It shall be the duty of every member to recruit new members, but it shall be understood that every introducing member shall vouch with his own life for all those whom he introduces into the organization.
Article 25. The members of the organization as amongst themselves shall not be known to one another. Only the members of Directorates shall be known personally to one another.
Article 26. In the organization the members shall be registered and known by their respective numbers. But the Supreme Central Directorate must know them also by their respective names.
Article 27. The members of the organization must unconditionally obey all the commands given by their respective Directorates, as also all the Directorates must obey unconditionally the commands which they receive direct from their superior Directorate.
Article 28. Every member shall be obliged to impart officially to the organization whatever comes to his knowledge, either in his private life or in the discharge of his official duties, in as far as it may be of interest to the organization.
Article 29. The interest of the organization shall stand above all other interests.
Article 30. On entering into the organization, every member must know that by joining the organization he loses his own personality; he must not expect any glory for himself, nor any personal benefit, material or moral. Consequently the member who should dare to try to exploit the organization for his personal, or class, or party interests shall be punished by death.
Article 31. Whosoever has once entered into the organization can never by any means leave it, nor shall anybody have the authority to accept the resignation of a member.
Article 32. Every member shall support the organization by his weekly contributions. The organizations, however, shall have the authority to procure money, if need be, by coercion. The permission to resort to these means may be given only by Supreme Central Directorate within the country, or by the regional Directorates within their respective region.
Article 33. In administering capital punishment the sole responsibility of the Supreme Central Directorate shall be to see that such punishment is safely and unfailingly carried into effect without any regard for the ways and means to be employed in the execution.
IV. The Seal and the Oath of Allegiance
Article 34. The Organization's official seal is thus composed: In the center of the seal there is a powerful arm holding in its hand an unfurled flag on which—as a coat of arms—there is a skull with crossed bones; by the side of the flag, a knife, a bomb and a phial of poison. Around, in a circle, there is the following inscription, reading from left to right: "Unification or Death," and in the base: "The Supreme Central Directorate"
Article 35. On entering into the organization the joining member must pronounce the following oath of allegiance: "I (the Christian name and surname of the joining member), by entering into the organization 'Unification or Death,' do hereby swear by the Sun which shineth upon me, by the Earth which feedeth me, by God, by the blood of my forefathers, by my honor and by my life, that from this moment onward and until my death, I shall faithfully serve the task of this organization and that I shall at all times be prepared to bear for it any sacrifice. I further swear by God, by my honor and by my life, that I shall unconditionally carry into effect all its orders and commands. I further swear by my God, by my honor and by my life, that I shall keep within myself all the secrets of this organization and carry them with me into my grave. May God and my comrades in this organization be my judges if at any time I should wittingly fail or break this oath!"
V. Supplementary Orders
Article 36. The present Constitution shall come into force immediately.
Article 37. The present Constitution must not be altered.
Done at Belgrade this 9th day of May, 1911 A.D.
Signed: Major Ilija Radivojevitch
Vice-Consul Bogdan Radenkovitch
Colonel Cedimilj A. Popovitch
Lt.-Col. Velimir Vemitch
Journalist Ljubomir S. Jovanovitch
Col. Dragutin T. Dimitrijevitch
Major Vojin P. Tanksoitch
Major Milan Vasitch
Col. Milovan Gr. Milovanovitch
What happened next …
At the end of 1916, the Serbian government decided to abolish Black Hand. A few months later, most of its leaders had been arrested. Apis, the founder, was convicted of conspiring to murder the Serbian head of state, Prince Regent Alexander, and executed on June 26, 1917. Also in June of that year, Black Hand was formally outlawed.
Within a few months, however, another organization—this time called White Hand—had sprung up with similar goals. It operated for many decades in the Balkans, where territorial disputes continued to cause warfare through the end of the twentieth century. In fact, in the country that came to be known as Yugoslavia, White Hand was an official part of the government.
Did you know …
- One outcome of the first world war was the formation of a new Balkan nation called the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. The name of the country was changed in 1929 to Yugoslavia, the land of the southern Slavs. Yugoslavia broke apart into separate countries in the 1990s; these new nations include Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
For More Information
Cassels, Lavender. The Archduke and the Assassin: Sarajevo, June 28, 1914. New York: Stein and Day, 1985.
Gilfond, Henry. The Black Hand at Sarajevo. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1975.
Judah, Tim. The Serbs: History, Myth, and the Destruction of Yugoslavia. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997.
MacKenzie, David. "The Black Hand and Its Statutes." East European Quarterly, Summer 1991, p. 179.
Pozzi, Henri. Black Hand over Europe, Consisting of War Is Coming Again. London, England: The Francis Mott Company, 1935 (source of excerpt).
Shackelford, Michael. The Black Hand: The Secret Serbian Terrorist Society. Available at (accessed on September 30, 2002).