Outbreak of the war
End of the war

The consequences of the First World War often blocked the path to a rapid integration of home-comers from war captivity. Besides widespread economic and social problems, conflicts also arose in various countries motivated by ideology.

Straight after the end of the four-year mass slaughter, returnees from the battlefields and the former enemy states often belonged to the margins of society. Together with invalids and the unemployed they formed a potential for protest, especially in the Danube region, which played a key role in the political unrest in Austria and in the establishment of the council-based republic in Hungary.

Former prisoners of war rarely joined radical-left or communist parties for longer periods, however. Only individuals decided to leave their old homeland for good, in order to try a new start in the Soviet Union. The fact that most home-comers experienced long-term problems in integrating into their work and family life is evidenced, moreover, by the corresponding aid measures provided by various associations for former prisoners of war.

These were at pains to lend meaning to the experiences ‘in enemy hands’. The work done in remembering, which expressed itself in numerous association magazines, memoirs and exhibitions, increasingly sank into authoritarian waters in Germany and Austria, however. Against this background, men sought to interpret the ‘suffering behind barbed wire’ as a starting point for heightened patriotism. Patriotic feeling and ‘national solidarity’, it was said accordingly, had been ‘matured’ under catastrophic circumstances ‘far away’.

Yet these approaches to the Zeitgeist of the 1930s were insufficient to relocate the theme of captivity in war at the centre of public interest. It is striking how this problematic issue was kept silent in totalitarian regimes above all. The National Socialist, for example, practised mental preparation for war, and so harboured little sympathy for a depiction of captivity that, for all the stylisation of the camp as a microcosm of patriotic solidarity, still made crystal clear the dreadful consequences of a trial of strength by arms.

Italian fascism also recognised too much that was distracting in the fates of prisoners of war. Under Mussolini the theme was made a taboo as much as in the USSR. Time and again the image of cowardly and treacherous soldiers arose, who had gone over to the opponent’s side. Moreover, the Soviet authorities suspected that former prisoners under ‘foreign control’ had been ‘infected’ with ‘bourgeois’, anti-Bolshevist thinking. From this perspective it is no surprise that in the Soviet-Russian code of criminal law of 1926, being held captive was made the equivalent of high treason, carrying the death penalty. Eventually, in the ‘cleansing’ under Stalin, former prisoners of war were categorised as suspicious. They thus were among the first groups of victims of the ‘Great Terror’ from 1936 onwards.


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

Moritz, Verena/Leidinger, Hannes: Zwischen Nutzen und Bedrohung. Die russischen Kriegsgefangenen in Österreich (1914–1921), Bonn 2005

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

Contents related to this chapter


  • Aspect

    After the war

    The First World War marked the end of the “long nineteenth century”. The monarchic empires were replaced by new political players. The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy disintegrated into separate nation states. The Republic of German Austria was proclaimed in November 1918, and Austria was established as a federal state in October 1920. The years after the war were highly agitated ­– in a conflicting atmosphere of revolution and defeat, and political, economic, social and cultural achievements and setbacks.


Persons, Objects & Events

  • Object

    Strikes, revolutionary movements

    The transformation of production facilities for war work and the departure of the men to the front meant that women increasingly performed typical male jobs, in the armaments industry and elsewhere. They also had to feed their families and were thus the first to react to the increasingly precarious food situation and the extremely bad working conditions.

  • Object


    In November 1920 a report appeared in Neuigkeits-Welt-Blatt about the happy return of all seven brothers in the Baumgartner family. Six had returned unharmed from the front directly after the end of the war, while Otto arrived in Vienna in 1920 after five years as a prisoner of war. Whether wounded or intact, released from captivity or not, returnees faced difficulties in reintegrating in the post-war civilian world.

  • 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.