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
- The Fading-Out of the Balkan Front
- The War before the War
- Sarajevo and the July Crisis
- Ethnic Conflicts and the Brutalisation of the Battles
- Disillusionment for the Army – The Failed ‘Punitive Expedition’
- ‘The Allies’ Successes’
- The Occupying Regime in Different Regions
- Romania's Entry into the War and Defeat by the Central Powers
- Greece on the Side of the Entente
- 1918 – Peace between Romania and the Central Powers
- Consequences of the War on the Balkans