Outbreak of the war
End of the war

The return home of hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war took place towards and after the end of the First World War under circumstances of revolution. Regular evacuation methods were hard to carry out in the wake of the upheavals in Central and Eastern Europe. To this was then added the mistrust felt towards the prisoners by those back home. Defensive measures were taken, which likewise set up conflict.

Although – as part of the peace agreement reached with the Bolsheviks in Brest-Litovsk (on March 3, 1918) – the Central Powers sought to release as few Russian prisoners as possible yet get back all the more of their own soldiers, the latter were not especially welcome, neither in Germany nor in Austria-Hungary. The imperial-royal War Ministry together with the army chief command thus set up camps to monitor and discipline the nigh-on 700,000 men who reached their own army front lines, often by back routes and more rarely by regular transport. The reception, anything but warm, the general war-weariness as well as the social and economic crisis, and less the Soviet ‘revolutionary ideas’, accounted for several mutinies among the former prisoners of war.

Meanwhile anti-Bolshevist ‘white’ governments and the great powers allied with them considered the half million soldiers of the Central Powers as still their prisoners, especially as they did not recognise the rulings of the Brest Treaty. A declaration to this effect of October 23, 1918 originated from the ‘All-Russian Government in Omsk’. A few days later, on November 3, some 300,000 soldiers of the Habsburg army were taken prisoner by the Italian armed forces, after communication problems as a result of the ceasefire negotiations.

While in the coming months many Entente soldiers, who had found themselves held captive by the collapsing Habsburg and Hohenzollern empires, were repatriated or set off home on their own, it took longer for the losers of the First World War. After corresponding agreements with the western powers, it was finally Russia that proved the greatest problem. 

Other complicating factors that hindered repatriation actions were the unrest in the Danube area, the establishment of short-term council-based republics in Bavaria and Hungary as well as the conflicts between the successor states of the Danube Monarchy. In many places, too, the flow back home of Bolshevist-influenced men from the former territory of the Russian Empire was awaited with scepticism.

The definitive solution to the repatriation problem could be achieved with help of the Red Cross and the League of Nations, as well as with international cooperation. Ultimately of particular significance also were the concessions made by the Soviet Union, which had conquered its opponents in most regions of the former Romanov Empire, and had reached bilateral agreements with various European states, including the Republic of Austria, at the beginning of the 1920s.

It was under these conditions that initially 100,000 ‘new Austrians’, i.e. citizens of the young First Republic, returned home from Italy, mainly. Between January 1920 and March 1922 nearly 120,000 former Austro-Hungarian soldiers then came back from Soviet territory, of which 25,000 were ‘new Austrians’. On the part of the government in Vienna, the return of prisoners of war was thus considered finished. From 1922/23 onwards, responsibility for repatriation of late returning men lay with the Ministry of the Interior, and subsequently the Federal Chancellery.


Leidinger, Hannes/Moritz, Verena: Die Repatriierung der k. u. k. Kriegsgefangenen 1918 bis 1922, in: Politicum, 28. Jg., Nov. 2007, 102: 1918 – Der Beginn der Republik, 53-56.

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.

  • 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


    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.

  • Object


    Desertion was a phenomenon that all of the armies – including the multinational Habsburg army – had to deal with throughout the four years of the war. This official proclamation from 1915 in three languages (Hungarian, German and Serbian) relates cases of desertion by prisoners of war and their ‘deliberate’ support by the local civilian population. It is described as a ‘crime against military supply’, which is subject to ‘merciless’ punishment.