A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Austro-Hungarian army executes civilians in Serbia

No.5 Serbia, September 1914: Any illusions about the romance of war rapidly evaporated when the  Austro-Hungarian army invaded Serbia. Overwhelming force was met with implacable resistance, spawning a vicious cycle of atrocities. Tony Paterson continues our series by focusing on a moment that stood for all too many more

The shocking, black-and-white photograph, taken on the edge of a Serbian village just days after it was invaded by the massed forces of the Austro-Hungarian army in the late summer of 1914, is not the only one of its kind. In this one, a line of Serbian men in civilian clothes are attached to posts: possibly dead already, possibly awaiting execution by firing squad.

There are others. In one, three women in colourful peasant costumes and four men in dark suits are trussed up like helpless game birds on crucifix-shaped poles, their faces covered with white blindfolds, while soldiers stand nearby, rifles in hand. In a third, the civilians, also blindfolded, are kneeling in a semi-circle, each tied to a small post, while the firing squad takes aim.

These photographs were almost certainly taken by members of the Austro-Hungarian army. They allow only fleeting glimpses of the horror experienced by civilians almost immediately after the invasion of Serbia began on 12 August 1914.

The military justification for the massacre of civilians was that many were “partisans” engaged in a guerrilla war against the invading forces. As early as 17 August, the Austro-Hungarian general, Lothar vonHortstein, complained that it was impossible to send reconnaissance patrols into Serb territory because “all were killed by the rural people”. But it is also certain that popular anti-Serb sentiment gave the military the impression it had been given carte blanche to commit atrocities. A popular song in Vienna in August of that year was entitled “Alle Serben müssen sterben” (“All Serbs must die”).

 

Anti-Serb propaganda postcards on sale in the Austrian capital depicted Serbs as backward “Untermenschen” or “Sub humans” – a term later used by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis to describe Jews and Slavs. Some advocated that Serbs should be boiled alive in cauldrons or stuck on forks and eaten.

The Austrian empire was bent on avenging the Serb nationalist assassination of its heir to throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, with brutality on a scale so far unprecedented in modern war. Much has been written about the German massacre of Belgian civilians during the opening stages of the Great War. Far less has been told about Austro-Hungary’s treatment of Serbia’s civilian population.

The anti-civilian offensive has been described as the beginning of a type of warfare dubbed “Vernichtungskrieg”, or “war of destruction”, ruthlessly practised by Nazi Germany on civilian populations across Europe just over a quarter of a century later. Anton Holzer, an Austrian historian and expert on the Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia in 1914, wrote: “There were countless and systematic massacres carried out against the Serbian population.

“The soldiers invaded villages and rounded up unarmed men, women and children. They were either shot dead, bayoneted to death or hanged. The victims were locked into barns and burned alive. Women were sent up to the front lines and mass-raped. The inhabitants of whole villages were taken as hostages and humiliated and tortured. The perpetrators were the soldiers of the Austro-Hungarian army.”

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Austria's Atrocities. Blindfolded and in a kneeling position, patriotic Jugo-Slavs in Serbia near the Austrian lines were arranged in a semi-circle and ruthlessly shot at a command

Much of the evidence of Austro-Hungarian war crimes against Serbia’s civilian population was collected by the Swiss criminology professor, Rodolphe Archibald Reiss, who as a neutral observer was asked by the Serbian government to investigate. Reiss reported in 1916 that countless Austro-Hungarian troops confirmed having received orders to attack and massacre the Serbian civilian population and that “everything was permissible”.

Serbia’s civilian population did not have to wait long for a repeat performance. In 1941,  Hitler’s troops invaded Serbia and set about massacring members of the civilian population. As in 1914, some were alleged to be partisans. Others were shot in reprisal executions to avenge the deaths of German troops. Some German soldiers were equipped with home cine-cameras. They filmed the hapless Serb civilians being shot or strung up and hanged en masse from makeshift gallows. Photography had moved on since 1914 – this time the pictures were moving and in colour.

Tomorrow: The Battle of Tannenberg ‘A History of the Great War in 100 Moments’ continues daily, in The Independent and The Independent on Sunday, until 12 July

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