Outbreak of the war
End of the war

A range of differing organisations set themselves the goal of removing the numerous deficiencies in the prisoners of war system. Ultimately, however, all initiatives failed in the face of the sheer scale of the problems involved.

Charitable activities in favour of the ‘soldier behind barbed wire’ were also made more difficult due to the behaviour of those waging war. In all the states, repressive measures against the camp inmates occurred, regulations of international law were flouted, attempts to improve the situation failed due to the demand for ‘reciprocity’, i.e. mutuality. An early exchange of soldiers, and in particular of the disabled, could also be achieved only to a modest degree.

Neutral protective powers representing the interests of citizens of hostile countries were also initially confronted with various obstacles. However, the neutral countries did not apparently always show the appropriate interest in this task. Spanish diplomats in Germany and Austria-Hungary who were meant to take care of soldiers of the Tsarist army hardly found any fault with the conditions at the internment camps. Similarly reserved were the actions of the United States on the other hand, which had been entrusted with the fate of soldiers of the Habsburg and Hohenzollern armies in the Romanov Empire.

Greatly more effective than the ponderous mediation of embassies and consulates proved to be the actions of the various Red Cross organisations. Its International Committee had at its disposal a central information office with an impressive card index of individuals, and sent representatives to the warring countries. Furthermore, contacts among Europe’s aristocracy were exploited, their members mostly exerting considerable influence over the individual national aid organisations concerned.

Against this background, the visits of Russian and German, and also Austro-Hungarian, welfare nurses occurred, too. To be sure, they showed extraordinary devotion and personal courage from time to time, yet in the long term brought about no basic improvement in conditions with their so-called Visitiering (visitation) of the camps. Those who worked most efficiently, in contrast, were the Swedish delegates, who distributed more than one thousand wagon loads of ‘love gifts’ – mostly packages with food and clothing – from the Hohenzollern Empire and the Danube Monarchy to Central Powers’ soldiers located in the Russian Empire.

The Scandinavians operated as neutral protective powers in Russia, too, from 1917 onwards. Denmark and Sweden were certainly candidates of choice for the governments in Vienna and Berlin, whose administration now had to deal, moreover, with the effects of the collapse of the Romanov dynasty and the growing dissatisfaction with their own populations.

Incidentally, so-called ‘relatives’ associations’ featured increasingly among the key private initiatives, which were concerned with the fate of their family members in captivity, and which demanded increased involvement on the part of the central authorities concerned as well as the institutions they cooperated with, specifically ‘the keeping of records and dissemination of information with regard to military persons fallen into enemy hands’. However, the resources available for this on the part of official bodies were ever diminishing. The called-for improvement in aid to prisoners of war was ultimately hindered by the economic, social and political crisis that culminated in the collapse of the Danube Monarchy.


Leidinger, Hannes/Moritz, Verena: Gefangenschaft, Revolution, Heimkehr. Die Bedeutung der Kriegsgefangenenproblematik für die Geschichte des Kommunismus in Mittel- und Osteuropa 1917–1920, Wien/Köln/Weimar 2003

Oltmer, Jochen (Hrsg.): Kriegsgefangene im Europa des Ersten Weltkriegs, Paderborn/München/Wien 2006

Contents related to this chapter


  • Aspect

    Violence in war

    Violence was a universal social phenomenon during the First World War. Soldiers, civilians, men, women, children and old persons were all confronted by it in one form or another. The way it was experienced differed. It was practised and suffered, it had mental and physical manifestations, it took place at a structural and an individual level, and it was felt directly and indirectly.

Persons, Objects & Events

  • Object

    War crimes

    The Austro-Hungarian army committed various types of war crimes, ranging from the use of illegal warfare agents and inhuman treatment of prisoners of war to brutality towards civilians. Villages and towns were burnt to the ground, hostages were taken and shot, there was forcible deportation, internment, forced labour, mass executions, rape and pillaging. The Habsburg military courts also sentenced tens of thousands of people to death. It only took a careless comment, a spurious suspicion or a denunciation for an innocent civilian to end up on the gallows.

  • Object

    Prisoners of war

    In May 1916, Anton Baumgartner sent a POW postcard to his son Otto in Novo Nikolayevsk POW camp in Siberia (now Novosibirsk). Otto Baumgartner is only one of hundreds of thousands of soldiers who fell into enemy hands during the First World War. One in thirteen German soldiers, one in ten French and Italian, one in five Russian and almost one in three Austro-Hungarian soldiers ended up in captivity.

  • Object

    War invalids

    No other war left such an army of invalids and men with diseases and life-long psychological scars. Mechanical aids such as this writing aid were designed to restore functions to those wounded in the war and in this way to help them to reintegrate into the labour market. Even several years after the end of the war, it was impossible to determine the number of people who had returned injured or diseased from the front. In 1922 there were around 143,000 war invalids living in Austria.