Excerpts from: FALSEHOOD IN WAR-TIME: Propaganda Lies of the First World War by Arthur Ponsonby


The murder at Serajevo of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, nephew of the Emperor Franz Joseph, and the consequent Austrian ultimatum, are sometimes referred to as the cause of the war, whereas, of course, they were only the occasion – the match which set fire to the well-stored powder magazine. The incident was by no means a good one for propaganda purposes. Fortunately for the Government, the Serajevo assassination, together with the secret commitment to France, was allowed to fall into the background after the invasion of Belgium. It was extremely difficult to make the Serbian cause popular. “John Bull” exploded at once with “To Hell with Serbia,” and most people were naturally averse to being dragged into a European war for such a cause. Some wondered what the attitude of our own Government would have been had the Prince of Wales been murdered in similar circumstances, and a doubtful frame of mind existed. The Serbian case, therefore, had to be written up, and “poor little Serbia “ had to be presented as an innocent small nationality subjected to the offensive brutality of the Austrians.

The following extract from The Times leader, September 15, 1914, is a good sample of how public opinion was worked up: “The letter which we publish this morning from Sir Valentine Chirol is a welcome reminder of the duty we owe to the gallant army and people.... We are too apt to overlook the splendid heroism of the Servian people and the sacrifices they have incurred.... And Servia has amply deserved support.... Nor ought we to forget that this European war of liberation was precipitated by Austro-German aggression upon Servia. The accusations of complicity in the Sarajevo crime launched against Servia as a pretext for aggression have not been proved. It is more than doubtful whether they are susceptible of proof.... While there is thus every reason for not accepting Austrian charges, there are the strongest reasons for giving effective help to a gallant ally who has fought for a century in defence of the principle of the independence of little States which we ourselves are now fighting to vindicate with all the resources of our Empire.

Mr. Lloyd George, speaking at the Queen’s Hall on September 21, 1914, said: “If any Servians were mixed up with the murder of the Archduke, they ought to be punished for it. Servia admits that. The Servian Government had nothing to do with it, not even Austria claimed that. The Servian Prime Minister is one of the most capable and honoured men in Europe. Servia was willing to punish any of her subjects who had been proved to have any complicity in that assassination. What more could you expect ?

“Punch” gave us “Heroic Serbia,” a gallant Serb defending himself on a mountain pass.

Between June 28 and July 23, 1914, no arrests were made or explanation given by the Serbian Government. The Austrian representative, Von Storck, was told: “The police have not concerned themselves with the affair.” The impression given was that entirely irresponsible individuals, unknown to anyone in authority, were the criminals. As the war proceeded the matter was lost sight of, and our Serbian ally and its Government were universally, accepted as one of the small outraged nationalities for whose liberation and rights British soldiers were willingly prepared to sacrifice their lives.”

The revelations as to the complicity of the Serbian Government in the crime did not appear till 1924, when an article was published entitled, “After Vidovdan, 1914,” by Ljuba Jovanovitch, President of the Serbian Parliament, who had been Minister of Education in the Cabinet of M. Pashitch in 1914. The relevant extracts from this article may be given.

“I do not remember if it were the end of May or the beginning of June when, one day, M. Pashitch told us that certain persons were preparing to go to Serajevo, in order to kill Franz Ferdinand, who was expected there on. Vidovdan. (Sunday, June 28th). He told this much to us others, but he acted further in the affair only with Stojan Protitch, then Minister of the Interior. As they told me afterwards, this was prepared by a society of secretly organized men, and by the societies of patriotic students of Bosnia-Herzegovina, in Belgrade. M. Pashitch and we others said (and Stojan Protitch agreed) that he, Stojan, should order the authorities on the Drin frontier to prevent the crossing of the youths who had left Belgrade for the purpose. But these frontier authorities were themselves members of the organization, and did not execute Stolan’s order, and told him, and he afterwards told us, that the order had come too late, for the youths had already crossed over. Thus failed the Government attempt to prevent the outrage (atentat) that had been prepared.

“This makes it clear that the whole Cabinet knew of the plot some time before the murder took place; that the Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior knew in which societies it had been prepared; that the frontier guard was deeply implicated and working under the orders of those who were arranging the crime. There failed also the attempt of our Minister of Vienna, made on his own initiative, to the Minister Bilinski, to turn the Archduke from the fatal path which had been planned. Thus the death of the Archduke was accomplished in circumstances more awful than had been foreseen and with consequences no one could have even dreamed of.”

No official instruction was sent to Vienna to warn the Archduke. The Minister acted on his own initiative. This is further substantiated by a statement of M. Pashitch quoted in the Standard, July 21, 1914. “Had we known of the plot against the late Archduke Franz Ferdinand, assuredly we should have informed the Austro-Hungarian Government. He did know of the plot, but gave no warning to the Austro-Hungarian Government.

In an article in the Neues Wiener Tageblatt, June 28, 1924, Jovan Jovanovitch, the Serbian Minister in Vienna, explained that the warning he gave was in the form of a personal and unprompted opinion that the manoeuvres were provocative and the Archduke might be shot by one of his own troops.

Ljuba Javanovitch describes his reception of the news: “On Vidoydan (Sunday, June 2.8, 1914) in the afternoon I was at my country house at Senjak. About 5 P.M. an official telephoned to me from the Press Bureau telling what had happened at Serajevo. And although 1 knew what was being prepared there, yet, as I held the receiver, it was as though someone had unexpectedly dealt me a heavy blow. When later the news was confirmed from other quarters a heavy anxiety oppressed me.... I saw that the position of our Government with regard to other Governments would be very difficult, far worse than after May 29, 1903” (the murder of King Alexander).

In La Fédération Balcanique Nicola Nenadovitch asserts that King Alexander, the Russian Minister Hartwig, and the Russian military attaché Artmanov, as well as Pashitch, were privy to the plot.

The Austrian Government, in its ultimatum, demanded the arrest of one Ciganovitch. He was found, but mysteriously disappeared. This man played an important part. Colonel Simitch, in Clarti, May 1925, describes him as a link between Pashitch and the conspirators, and says: “M. Pashitch sent his agent into Albania.” The report of the Salonika trial shows that he was a spy and agent provocateur to the Serb Government. He was “Number 412” in the list of “the Black Hand,” a revolutionary society known to and encouraged by the Government (M. Pashitch’s nephew was a member). Its head was Dimitrijevitch, the chief officer of the Intelligence Staff, an outstanding figure who led the assassination of King Alexander and his Queen in 1903. The agent of the Black Hand in Serajevo was Gatchinovitch, who organized the murder, plans having been laid months beforehand. The first attempt with a bomb was made by Chabrinovitch, who was in the Serbian State printing office. Printzip, a wild young man who was simply a tool, actually committed the murder. When he and the other murderers were arrested they confessed that it was through Ciganovitch that they had been introduced to Major Tankositch, supplied with weapons and given shooting lessons. After the Salonika trial the Pashitch Government sent Ciganovitch, as a reward for his services, to America with a false passport under the name of Danilovitch. After the war was over Ciganovitch returned, and the Government gave him some land near Uskub, where he then resided.

That the Austrian Government should have recognized that refusal to either find Ciganovitch or permit others to look for him meant guilt on the part of the Serbian Government and therefore resorted to war is not surprising.

A postcard was found at Belgrade “poste restante,” written from Serajevo by one of the criminals to one of his comrades in Belgrade. But this was not followed up. As Ljuba says: “On the whole it could be expected that Vienna would not succeed in proving any connection between official Serbia and the event on the Miljacka.”

The remark of a Serbian student sums up the case: “You see, the plan was quite successful. We have made Great Serbia.” And M. Pashitch himself, on August 13, 1915, declared: “Never in history has there been a better outlook for the Serbian nation than has arisen since the outbreak of war.”

It came as a surprise to the Serbian Government that any excitement should have been caused by the revelation of Ljuba. They thought that Great Britain understood what had happened, and in her eagerness to fight Germany had jumped at the excuse. When, however, the truth came out, proceedings were instituted to expel Ljuba from the Radical Party. Nothing which transpired on this occasion, however, produced a categorical denial from M. Pashitch of the charge made by Ljuba. He evaded the issue so far as possible.

There appears to be no doubt that before the end of the war the British War Office was officially informed that Dimitrijevitch, of the Serbian Intelligence Staff, was the prime author of the murder. He was executed at Salonika in 1917, his existence having been found to be inconvenient. But when it came to the framing of the Peace Treaties at Versailles, there was a conspiracy of silence on the whole subject.

This terrible instance of deception should be classed as a Serbian lie, but its acceptance was so widespread that half Europe became guilty of complicity in it, and even if the truth did reach other Chancelleries and Foreign Offices of the Allied Powers during the war, it would have been quite impossible for them to reveal it. Had the truth been known, however, in July 1914, the opinion of the British people with regard to the Austrian ultimatum would have been very different from what it was.