Outbreak of the war
End of the war

War against the Local Population

The armies of the belligerent powers often viewed the population that still lived near the frontlines as an unwanted nuisance. The increasing nervousness and intensified ‘Russophile’ image of the enemy in the wake of the commencment of hostilities thus took its toll on the civilian population on the Eastern Front, too. There were several orders that decreed ‘ruthless actions’ towards ‘suspects and possible traitors’. Whoever was not ‘massacred and without mercy’ on the spot faced a policy of rigorous deportation.

In many parts of Galicia the local populace was treated in a most inhumane manner: entire villages were burnt to the ground for ‘strategic reasons’, residents often dispelled at ‘bayonet point’ without explanation and without even letting them take along any of their personal belongings. Also the transport conditions to the new destinations were disastrous, men and women, women and little children were ruthlessly separated by the military commanders. Many people died of hypothermia in the open and unheated cattle wagons due to lack of proper clothing; at the same time similar scenes of misery took place in the front and base territories of the Tsarist Army. Here too, the military officers expelled parts of the local population without mercy or appropriate precautionary measures. Many people died of malnutrition, pneumonia, cholera or typhus.

These scenes of misery partially showed the ‘modernising shortfalls’ in the regions concerned, but even more so the state apparatus being overwhelmed by the ‘masses’ of refugees, detainees and prisoners of war that ‘had to be administered to’. But there were other reasons as well: even before 1914, widespread hysteria concerning espionage and treason now escalated into a conduct of war that was racist and radical; the patriotism now on show with its attendant rejection of anyone or anything different meant that civilians were now increasingly targeted.

As a result of this the Austro-Hungarian battle forces made ‘extensive use’ of the ‘right for self-defence’ against ‘Russophiles’ right from the start, which meant that they shot anyone suspicious on the spot, took hostages who were executed at will, accused entire villages of treason and as a consequence ‘flattened them to the ground’. Others were taken to the detention camps of Gmünd, Theresienstadt and Thalerhof near Graz where they were subject to new torments after having suffered appalling conditions on their transports. They were jammed together in tents and barracks with no more than starvation rations, and so in Thalerhof alone at least 2,000 of the 30,000 Ruthenians – men, women and children – from Galicia and Bukovina died of malnutrition, exhaustion and typhus between 1914 and 1917.

The Russian army behaved no better, especially towards the Jewish population who often saw themselves confronted with the most unfounded of accusations. They were vilified as ‘troublemakers’, ‘spies’ and ‘saboteurs’ and as a consequence, like many Ruthenians, fell victim to numerous different assaults. There is documentation from different regions of violent excesses against the local population, many women falling victim to rape, in many places synagogues and entire living quarters burnt to the ground, thousands accused of treason and hundreds sentenced to death or executed without trial.


Gatrell, Peter: A Whole Empire Walking. Refugees in Russia during World War I, Bloomington/Indianapolis 1999

Leidinger, Hannes: „Der Einzug des Galgens und des Mordes“. Die parlamentarischen Stellungnahmen polnischer und ruthenischer Reichsratsabgeordneter zu den Massenhinrichtungen in Galizien 1914/15, in: Zeitgeschichte, 33. Jg. Sept./Okt. 2006, H. 5, 235-260

Mentzel, Walter: Kriegsflüchtlinge in Cisleithanien im Ersten Weltkrieg, Diss. Wien 1997

Wendland, Anna Veronika: Die Russophilen in Galizien, Wien 2001

Zielinski, Konrad: The Shtetl in Poland, 1914–1918, in: Katz, Steven T. (Hrsg.): The Shtetl. New Evaluations, New York/London 2007, 102-120

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

    Flight and deportation

    Millions of people fled during the war from the fighting and the marauding soldiers. The situation was particularly dramatic in ethnically heterogeneous regions on the eastern front. Apart from the invaders, local soldiers also attacked minorities. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were deported far away from the front and behind the lines, in some cases because they were seen as untrustworthy “internal enemies” and in others to exploit them as forced labourers.

  • 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

    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.


  • Development


    Around the turn of the century anti-Semitism entered the political agenda and became part of the ideological programme and guiding principle behind political activities. It was based on an ideology that stigmatised Jews as “different” and as a threat to society. During the First World War, anti-Semitic agitation abated initially underthe domestic “truce”, but it heated up again as the war failed to take the desired course.