Outbreak of the war
End of the war

Military training: violence as a military instrument for achieving obedience

The military systematically employed physical and psychological violence to train and tame recruits. Humiliation, threats and drastic physical punishments were daily occurrences. Although public criticism prompted various reforms, they were not necessarily felt in daily life in the barracks.

Since the mid-eighteenth century, barracks had been the most important institution for moulding fighting soldiers. It was here that the recruits were drilled by their superiors and trained to military obedience. Discipline, order and correction were the foundations on which the army organisation was based. Drastic means were used to achieve these aims: through the constant threat of severe physical punishment the soldiers were kept in a permanent state of fear and insecurity.

This form of military training was increasingly criticised. It ran counter to the humanistic idea of the individual and the demands for physical and mental integrity. By the time universal conscription was introduced, corporal punishment was already being regarded as old-fashioned. Lashing was seen by the citizen soldiers, who were recruited from all classes of society, as an inappropriate punishment. They claimed that the military should no longer just teach submission and discipline but should also be a “school of humanity”, promoting secondary virtues like honour and independence that would be useful to the recruits in their later civilian life.

The public were particularly outraged at the severe and sometimes abusive physical punishments. Although there was a comprehensive disciplinary code fixing the punishments for the various offences, they could in practice be interpreted and meted out at will. The boundaries between military drill, excessive sanctions, bullying and physical abuse were blurred. Moreover, the disciplinary code was not only applied for specific offences but also used by superiors as a universal disciplinary instrument. Unruly soldiers, those who forgot their duty or deviated from the strict norm could be forced at any time into subordination. It was not uncommon for punishments to be dished out as a matter of principle. An excuse could always be found in the strictly regulated life in the barracks.

In response to public criticism, flogging and corporal punishment were abolished in the amended disciplinary code of 1869. Restraint and putting in chains were painful punishments that were retained until 1903 and were used excessively in their place.

Despite the official amendments to the disciplinary code, military life was still filled with humiliations, bullying, punishment and beating, and recruitment into the army was still a great culture shock for most conscripts. In complete contrast to the demanded “humanitarian group treatment”, excessive violence was still the norm. Systematic humiliation, threats and drastic punishments were designed to destroy the civilian identity and train absolute obedience, emotional control and fearlessness in battle.

Emil Geissler, who joined the Pioneers in 1895, described his military training as follows: “On the parade ground we were tamed, tortured and hit by the trainer. He would stamp on our toes with his rifle – they felt like they had been completely crushed. […] I had three types of basic training with the Pioneers. Drill, working on the land with cramp irons and shovels, and water duty: all three bestial torture, not to mention the coarse vulgarity of the sergeant and NCOs.

Through this form of military training, universal conscription took on relevance for society as a whole: most of the male citizens of the Monarchy underwent it, and in doing so helped to disseminate internalised military “values” and “requirements” as to their role as husbands and fathers in the civilian world.


Translation: Nick Somers


Hämmerle, Christa: „…dort wurden wir dressiert und sekkiert und geschlagen…“. Vom Drill, dem Disziplinarstrafrecht und Soldatenmisshandlungen im Heer (1868 bis 1914), in: Cole, Laurence/Hämmerle, Christa/Scheutz, Martin (Hrsg.): Glanz, Gewalt, Gehorsam. Militär und Gesellschaft in der Habsburgermonarchie (1880 bis 1918), Essen 2011, 31-54



"On the parade ground...": Geisler, Emil, quoted from: Hämmerle, Christa: „…dort wurden wir dressiert und sekkiert und geschlagen…“. Vom Drill, dem Disziplinarstrafrecht und Soldatenmisshandlungen im Heer (1868 bis 1914), in: Cole, Laurence/Hämmerle, Christa/Scheutz, Martin (Hrsg.): Glanz, Gewalt, Gehorsam. Militär und Gesellschaft in der Habsburgermonarchie (1880 bis 1918), Essen 2011, 51 (Translation)

Contents related to this chapter


  • Aspect

    The Habsburg empire

    Austria-Hungary had an extremely diverse state structure. At the start of the First World War it was a major power in decline. Social and political problems and the dominant nationality conflicts shook the empire to its foundations. At the same time, the Monarchy represented an enormous cultural region in which the Habsburg empire flourished in spite of the political stagnation.

Persons, Objects & Events

  • Object

    Experiences of violence

    While some of the front soldiers experienced the “storm of steel” as the apotheosis of their own masculinity, most soldiers suffered on account of their physical and/or mental injuries. The destructiveness of modern mechanical warfare and the mental strain caused by the days and weeks in the trenches, the constant noise of the artillery and the sight of seriously wounded and mutilated comrades produced not only an army of war wounded but also masses of soldiers suffering from war neurosis.

  • Object

    Monitoring & control

    Everyday life in the Habsburg Monarchy was characterised by propaganda, monitoring and control, as can be seen by the many blank spaces in the daily newspapers and deletions in private correspondence and telegrams. At the same time an attempt was made in texts and audio-visual media to whip up general enthusiasm for the war. Not even the youngest inhabitants of the empire remained untouched, and the influence of the state was also felt in the schools of the Monarchy.


  • Development

    Gender roles: change/no change?

    It is a widely held view that the First World War revolutionised the traditional roles of men and women in society. Photos of tram conductresses, female coach drivers and postwomen would appear to confirm this, as does the assumption by women of the traditional male role as providers for the family. But did things change that much, and what was left of the supposed changes after 1918?