Outbreak of the war
End of the war

The relationship between prisoners of war and the civilian population

The military authorities were at pains to keep the enemy soldiers under their control as far away as possible from the local civilian population. As time passed, they had to acknowledge, however, that real fraternisation arose. Foreigners and locals were equally affected by the growing economic, social and political crisis.

In the course of time German military authorities increasingly bemoaned the lax guarding of prisoners of war. Their colleagues in the Danube Monarchy made similar complaints. For example, towards the end of 1915 they got worked up about the disregard for the ‘boundaries required by morality and decency’ between the local population and the ‘foreign military personnel’. In the relevant reports an everyday reality emerged in which prisoners not infrequently went to the cinema or pub after working hours ‘like normal workers’, or took part in other public events and amusements.

Both army circles and civilian authorities reacted particularly vehemently to the ‘intolerable behaviour’ of women and girls, who had ‘forgotten themselves... in their contact’ with enemy soldiers ‘without any consideration of nationality, race and family honour’. Prohibitions and threats of punishment showed hardly any effect, however. On the ‘home fronts’ the circumstances of prisoners connected in a general sense with the social situation found in the warring states.

The responsible government authorities noted with alarm, as did the relevant economic circles, that the enemy under their power were ready to join in the workers’ struggle of the home population. That was also the case in varying degrees with Russia and the Danube Monarchy. In the Austro-Hungarian army administration, for instance, more and reports were filed of ‘passive resistance’ and strikes, in which Russian prisoners of war also took part.

The relations between the civilian population and the ‘foreign soldiers’ are highlighted by means of a spontaneous demonstration in Vienna, for instance. In May 1917 passers-by had seen a group of Russian prisoners of war there, who were moving with difficulty, eventually ‘breaking ranks’ and asking for bread ‘with raised hands’. The accompanying guard attempted to re-establish ‘order’ using force. At which point women and children poured on to the street, screaming: ‘Shame on you! Stop making war, when there’s nothing left to eat, that’s how it will be for our poor devils in captivity’.


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

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

    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

    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

    Shortages and poverty

    When the population reacted to shortages of bread and flour in January 1915with panic buying, the Kriegs-Getreide-Vekehrsanstalt [Wartime Grain Trade Department] introduced ration cards. Individual quotas were determined and handed out on presentation of bread and flour ration cards. But even the allocated rations became more and more difficult to supply, and the cards became worthless.


  • Development

    Daily life on the (home) front

    How was daily life at home and on the front between 1914 and 1918? Was the life of a middle-class woman similar to that of a worker? Did officers experience warfare in the same way as other ranks? Or were the experiences of the population at home and the soldiers at the front too individual and diverse for generalisations?