Outbreak of the war
End of the war

Ethnic Conflicts and the Brutalisation of the Battles

The Serbian-Austrian conflict led to deliberately staged hostility and open hatred. The escalation of violence from summer 1914 was reinforced by the fact that a radicalised Austro-Hungarian army took over all authority in deployment and operations, and in many cases stopped differentiating between the military and civilians.

The regional boss of Bosnia and Commander of the Monarchy's military forces in the Southeast theatre of war, Oskar Potiorek, had already considered the Bosnian Serbs to be potential enemies before hostilities began and now transferred his mistrust and aversion to the entire Serbian population. The latter was accordingly described in orders given to Habsburg soldiers as a ‘hateful society of assassins’ towards whom any kind of ‘humanity and soft heartedness’ was inappropriate. 

From mid-August 1914, this attitude led to the destruction of homes and entire settlements, and the taking of hostages. A neutral observer estimated on behalf of the Serbian government that the invasion of Austro-Hungarian troops resulted in the murder or disappearance of up to 4,000 civilians.  The reports told of ‘systematic eradication’, whilst the Serbian defenders likewise tended towards ruthless behaviour.  

As a result, especially the fact that among the opponents civilians took part in battles was criticised by Austrian army commanders. After that, the pilloried ‘partisan activities’ also served to violate acceptable practices of war: while the Danube Monarchy had encouraged its military forces to abide by the corresponding international regulations, such instructions were rarely followed in combat. The results were immediate. Women and children were also amongst the victims of Austro-Hungarian ‘reprisal actions’.

As the military's mistrust was so vehemently directed against the population, many written complaints were received from local district heads aimed against the arbitrary actions of the Monarchy's troops. In a letter from the district leader Stolac of August 13, 1914, we read that suspected spies were not even interrogated after being arrested to clarify what had happened. The people did not know what to do under such circumstances, the leader wrote: ‘If they escape and leave their homes, they risk being burnt, as has happened to some, if they stay at home or with their livestock, they are arrested.’

The escalating violence continued, as the supplies to the troops collapsed and teams started looting. A Honvéd soldier thus reckoned that his own troops had lived ‘worse than the Swedes during the Thirty Years’ War’. Under these circumstances the fury of the local population towards the invaders grew, who, in turn and because of the military failures, acted ever more aggressively.

At crucial points this resulted in massacres, as for example in Sabac, where an infantry division slaughtered some 80 civilian prisoners in a churchyard on suspicion of having taken part in fighting against Austro-Hungarian units.


Gumz, Jonathan E.: The Resurrection and Collapse of Empire in Habsburg Serbia, 1914–1918, Cambridge 2009

Jerzabék, Rudolf: Potiorek. General im Schatten von Sarajewo, Graz 1991

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

    The foreigner, the adversary, the enemy!

    To popularise the greeting “Gott strafe England” [“May God punish England”] and the response “Er strafe es” [“May He do so”] it was printed on posters, badges and postcards. The idea was to promote patriotism and hatred of England. Right after the start of the war, animosity and mutual attributions of blame by the two sides were manifest. Xenophobia was officially encouraged as a sign of patriotism. This singling out and denigration of the enemy was designed to strengthen solidarity and justify the country’s own war policy.