Dragutin Dimitrijević was born in Belgrade on the 17 August 1876 into an ordinary middle class family. He was noted to be academically bright in his junior school and at the age of sixteen was sent to the Belgrade military academy. He excelled at the academy and when he graduated two years later he was recruited into the Serbian Army’s General Staff.
Dimitrijević served as a junior officer and reached the rank of captain during the early reign of King Aleksandar Obrenović (Alexander I). Aleksandar had ascended the throne of Serbia in 1889 when his father, King Milan, had abdicated. As a loyal member of the army Dimitrijević had pledged allegiance to the king but dissatisfaction over the king’s reign soon started to spread through the army. In 1900 Aleksandar married Draga Mašin, a former lady-in-waiting to his mother. The marriage had taken place without his father’s permission or approval. In addition Draga Mašin’s status was considered to render her unsuitable to marry the young king. The king’s mother also opposed the marriage and Aleksandar sent her into exile. Due to the lack or resect shown to his father and slight to the royal house in marrying beneath him, opposition to the king grew. The Prime Minister, Dr. Vladan Đorđević, felt so strongly that the marriage was unsuitable that he resigned immediately. from his offices. This loss of a key ally in the parliament weakened Aleksandar’s position politically. He had difficulty in forming a new cabinet and this created further antagonism as politicians felt the political upheaval to be entirely the king’s fault. The differing political parties in Serbia was exercised by various issues foremost amongst those being the Serbian nationalist who were agitating for the return to a greater Serbia encompassing the ‘traditional’ heartlands of Serbia and their antagonism to the Dual Monarchy of Austria- Hungary and their treatment of the Serbs that lived within their borders. In order to address these issues Aleksandar presented the parliament with a new liberal constitution. The new constitution allowed for issues to be discussed with all opinion heard and acted to reduce political criticism of the king.
However, although political tension had somewhat reduced a rumour arose that the king intended to name Lieutenant Nikodije, one of Draga Mašin’s brothers as heir presumptive. Lieutenant Nikodije was personally unpopular and moreover this was seen by many as a further slight on the royal house. Tension rose in the army and in early 1903 a plot arose to assassinate the king and queen. On the 11 June 1903, Dimitrijević and several of his fellow junior officers broke into the royal palace and killed the king and queen. The killing was particularly brutal. King Aleksandar and Queen Draga were shot and their bodies mutilated and disemboweled and thrown from a second floor window of the palace onto piles of garden manure lying below.
Dimitrijević did not participate in the actual murders, having been wounded in the storming of the palace. After the deaths of King Aleksandar and Queen Draga, Petar I Karađorđević became king of Serbia. The Serbian parliament declared that Dimitrijević was ‘the saviour of the fatherland’ and immediately appointed him Professor of Tactics at the Military Academy. Dimitrijević flourished in the role. He travelled widely across Europe studying various different military tactics and training regimes. During this time Dimitrijević became increasingly convinced of the need for all Serbs to join together in a greater Serbia. The intransigence of Emperor Franz Josef in this matter raised tensions across the Balkans. By 1911 Dimitrijević tried to arrange for the emperor’s assassination but was unsuccessful. However, in 1912 war broke out in the Balkans and Serbia, under Dimitrijević’s direction won several decisive victories increasing the land under Serbian control and the political calls for a greater Serbia.
The group that had undertaken the royal assassination were members of the Ujedinjenje ili smrt (Unification of Death) more generally called the Crna ruka (Black Hand) a group that had formed in 1901. By 1912 Dimitrijević was simultaneously the head of Serbian military intelligence and the leader of the Ujedinjenje ili smrt and was known as Apis (the Bull). Apis was increasingly worried by the action of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his conciliatory attitude towards the Serbs. If he succeeded the elderly emperor and his moderate political reforms were accepted then support for a greater Serbia might dissipate. Apis needed to remove the archduke and precipitate an aggressive act on the part of the Austrians to allow him in turn to retaliate. A series of incursions into Austrian territory were orchestrated by Apis alongside several political murders but Austria still refused to react. In the summer of 1914, however, the archduke announced his intention to visit Sarajevo to view military manoeuvres and Apis sensed an opportunity
In June 1914, Apis contacted Mlada Bosna (Young Bosnians) a group that agitated for the unification of all southern Slavs and recruited three young members; Gavrilo Princip, Nedeljko Čabrinović and Trifko Grabež. They were to assassinate the archduke. As the Bosnians were young Apis also recruited several older Serbians to help in the plot, Veljko and Vaso Čubrilović, Muhamed Mehmedbašić, Danilo Ilić, Cvjetko Popović and Miško Jovanović. However, Major Vojislav Tankosić, another member of Ujedinjenje ili smrt, felt the plot to be badly timed and took his concerns to Nikola Pašić, the prime minister. Pašić agreed with Tankosić, feeling the assassination to be likely to plunge Serbia into a flown blown war with the Austrians for which they were ill-prepared. Pašić ordered the three Bosnians to be arrested but the order was not implemented and the three arrived in Sarajevo where they met up with the four Serbians.
On the 28 June 1914 Gavrilo Princip assassinated Franz Ferdinand Archduke of Austria. The Austrian authorities instantly rounded up several members of the Ujedinjenje ili smrt. Under interrogation the men named Dimitrijević, Milan Ciganović, and Major Voja Tankosić as the organiser of the plot. On 23 July 1914, the Austro-Hungarian government sent an ultimatum to the Serbian government with a list of ten demands and a deadline of 5 p.m on the 25 July by which to reply. The ultimatum was worded such that is was extremely unlikely that the Serbians would comply and thus allow the Austrians to declare war; the intent of the ‘war party’ in Vienna. Pašić responded on 25 July 1914, accepted all the points of the ultimatum except the demand that Serbia allow an Austrian delegation to participate in a criminal investigation against those participants in the conspiracy that were present in Serbia. On the 28 July the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungarian declared war on Serbia.
The declaration of war saw, Dimitrijević expand his role as head of military intelligence and work across all aspects of the Serbian war machine. Several early successes in the war saw Dimitrijević promoted to colonel in 1916. Although this promotion was popular within the army Pašić was becoming increasingly concerned at Dimitrijević’s growing influence and power. The Ujedinjenje ili smrt had been officially banned in 1915. but had merely continued as before. In September 1916 there had been an attempted assassination of the regent Aleksandar I Karađorđević. Pašić then made his move and arrested Dimitrijević and several of the other senior members of Ujedinjenje ili smrt on suspicion of having planned the assassination.
Dimitrijević and his co-defendents were put on trial, the Salonika Trial, and on the 23 may 1917 were found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. Dimitrijević was executed on 24 June 1917, by firing squad. In 1953, Dimitrijević and his co-defendants were all posthumously retried by the Supreme Court of Serbia. They were found not guilty due to the lack of proof of their involvement in the assassination plot.