Austro-Hungarian occupation of Serbia Information

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Austro-Hungarian occupation of Serbia
Belgrade during the Austro-Hungarian occupation of 1915-1918.jpg
Austro-Hungarian troops in the streets of Belgrade during the occupation of Serbia
Date1 January 1916–1 November 1918
(2 years, 10 months, 4 weeks and 1 day)
LocationNorth West Serbia
West of the Morava Valley
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The Austro-Hungarian occupation of Serbia ( German: k.u.k. Militärverwaltung in Serbien, Hungarian: k.u.k. Katonai igazgatás Szerbiában) was a military occupation of Serbia by the forces of the Austria-Hungary that lasted from Autumn 1915 until the end of the First World War.

Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia on 28 July 1914 marked the beginning of the First World War. After three unsuccessful Austro-Hungarian offensives between August and December 1914, a combined Austro-Hungarian and German offensive breached Serbian territory from the north and west in October 1915 while the Bulgarian army attacked from the south-east. By January 1916, all of Serbia was occupied by the Central Powers.

Serbia was divided into two separate occupation zones, Bulgarian and Austro-Hungarian, both ruled by a military administration. The Austro-Hungarian occupation zone covered the northern three-quarters of Serbia, its military administration was set up with a governor and a civil commissioner at its head with the goal of denationalizing the Serb population and turn the country into a territory from which to draw food and exploit its economic resources.

In addition to a severe military legal system, banning all political organizations, forbidding public assembly, and bringing schools under its control, a ruthless system of economic exploitation was instituted. Uprisings were crushed with the harshest measures, including public hanging and shooting. During the occupation between 150,000 and 200,000 men, women, and children were deported to camps, built for that purpose in Austro-Hungarian territories, most notably Mauthausen in Austria, Auschwitz in Austrian Poland, and Györ in Hungary. [1]

The breakthrough of the Salonika front in October 1918 followed by the liberation of Belgrade on 1 November brought to an end the occupation of the country.


After the assassination of the Habsburg heir Franz Ferdinand by a Bosnian Serb student, the prestige of Austria-Hungary necessitated a punishing attack on the state that they deemed responsible. The Austrian military leadership was determined to destroy Serbian independence, which they saw as an unacceptable threat to the future of the empire and its large south Slav population. On 28 July 1914, one month after the murder of the Archduke and his wife, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, Habsburg batteries at Semlin on the Sava River immediately began hostilities by bombarding Belgrade, effectively beginning the First World War. Operations against Serbia were placed in the hands of Feldzeugmeister Oskar Potiorek, Governor-General of Bosnia-Herzegovina, on the morning of 12 August 1914 the first invasion of Serbia began. [2]

The punitive expedition

Territory of the Military Governorate in Serbia (in dark grey)

During the first invasion of Serbia, the Strafexpedition [3] ( punitive expedition) of August 1914, Austro-Hungarian forces occupied Serbian territories for 13 days. That first occupation turned into a brutal war of annihilation, accompanied by massacres of civilians and the taking of hostages; [4] during that period between 3,500 and 4,000 Serb civilians were killed in executions and random violence by marauding troops. [5]

Mass execution took place in numerous northern Serbia towns. On 17 August 1914, in the Serbian town of Šabac, 120 residents, mostly women, children and old men, who had previously been locked in the church, were shot and buried in the churchyard by Austro-Hungarian troops on the orders of Field Marshal Lieutenant Kasimir von Lütgendorf. [6] These type of attacks did not take place in the turmoil of the battle, but arranged and planned at the highest level. [7] Swiss criminologist pioneer Professor Archibald Reiss reported on the multiple atrocities committed by the Austro-Hungarian Army in a report that was presented at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. [8]

A second invasion in November captured Belgrade, the conquered territory was divided into five county commands (Etappenbezirkskommando). Austro-Hungarian Croat Field-Marshall Stjepan Sarkotić was appointed Governor-General of the Military Governorate in Belgrade, concentration camps were set up and tens of thousands of Serbs interned. [5] By mid-December the Serbs managed, against all odds, to defeat the invaders at the battle of Kolubara and repel them out of the country by 15 December. [9] Humiliation at the hands of a small Balkan peasant kingdom badly wounded the pride and prestige of the dual monarchy and its military but although Austria-Hungary had failed to crush Serbia, the Serbs had exhausted their military abilities. [10] Germany urged Austria-Hungary to restore lost prestige by yet another offensive, but without Bulgarian participation in an offensive against Serbia, the Austro-Hungarian commander-in-chief would not consider it until almost a year later. [11]

The campaign of the central powers

In September 1915 a secret agreement and a military convention was signed between the Central Powers and Bulgaria in Plessa. In October Serbia fell to a combined German, Austro-Hungarian, and Bulgarian invasion that followed the offensive of the Central Powers. The massive superiority in numbers and equipment of the invaders, especially in artillery, as well as the failed intervention by British and French troops, meant that the campaign was complete within 6 weeks. The defeated Serbian army did not surrender but retreated across the mountains of Albania and Montenegro into exile with the government, the royal house and hundred of thousands of civilians. The Serb Army spent the rest of the war fighting against Bulgarian and German troops on the Salonika front. Towards the end of 1915, Serbia was divided among the victors who each set up harsh occupational regimes. [12]

Administration and governance

Shortly after the retreat of the Serbian army, the Austro-Hungarian occupation zone was divided into thirteen approximately equal districts ( German: Kreise) which were then additionally divided into sixty-four boroughs (German: Brezirke), with the city of Belgrade as its own district. [13] The Austro-Hungarian administrative zone stretched from the region west of the Morava valley to Macedonia; the areas east of the Morava, Macedonia itself and most of Kosovo fell under Bulgarian rule, tensions between Austria and Bulgaria regarding the Albanian-inhabited Serbian territory culminated in March 1916 with a military confrontation. Austria and Hungary both supported the repatriation of Muslim refugees in occupied territory in order to weaken Serbia and strengthen the Muslim presence. [14] A German occupation zone was established in the area east of Velika Morava, Južna Morava in Kosovo and the Vardar valley, the Germans took control of railways, mines, forestry, and agricultural resources. [15]

On 1 January 1916 the Austro-Hungarian supreme command ordered the formation of a military governorate, the Militärgeneralgouvernement in Serbien (Military Governorate in Serbia or MGG/S) was established, with Belgrade as its administrative centre. The occupation was subordinated to the Austro-Hungarian Armeeoberkommando (Army High Command or AOK), under Franz Conrad von Hoetzendorff and later Arthur Arz von Straußenburg. The Military Governorate of occupation was headed by a General Governor with the rank of a corps commander. [16]

General Johan Graf von Salis-Seewis, first Governor-General of Serbia from 1 January 1916.
Map of the Austro-Hungarian administrative division of Serbia.

The first Governor-General, Johann Graf Salis-Seewis, a Croat by ethnicity with experience of fighting insurgents in Macedonia, had been commander of the 42nd Honvéd Infantry Division, [a] an entirely Croatian Division known as Vrazija Divizija or Devil’s Division, later found responsible of war crimes during the first Serbian campaign. [17] Salis-Seewis was appointed in late 1915 by the Emperor, officially taking office on 1 January 1916. [13] A civilian commissar in charged with all matters of civilian administration, Dr. Ludwig (Lajos) von Thallóczy, a prominent historian and specialist in Balkan affairs, was appointed by the Hungarian government as his deputy, he arrived in Belgrade on 17 January 1916. [18]

The separation of power quickly led to multiple clashes between civilian and military authorities as well as between Austrian and Hungarian authorities, Salis-Seewis' policies would lead to Serbia's annexation which Thallóczy, following the Hungarian prime minister’s directives, strongly opposed. [18] After touring Serbia in May, Hungarian Prime Minister Count Tisza was alarmed by what he saw as Austrian's military efforts to make the occupation a prelude to annexation, [19] he submitted a complaint to Foreign Minister Baron Burián asking for a thorough reorganisation of the Military Governorate, the removal of Salis-Seewis and the condemnation of annexationist policy in Serbia; Burian took the complaint straight to the Emperor. By the Emperor’s decision of 6 July 1916, Salis-Seewis and his chief of staff, Colonel Gelinek were replaced by his former corps commander, General Adolf Freiherr von Rhemen and Colonel Hugo Kerchnawe on 26 July, Rhemen remained in office until the end of the war. [20] Thallóczy was killed in a train crash while returning to Belgrade from Vienna in December 1916, [19] in January 1917 Teodor Kušević a high-ranking functionary from Bosnia-Herzegovina was appointed Civilian Commissioner to replace him. [13]

With the Austrians in charge of the military, the administration was mainly formed by Hungarians and Croats. Four administrative departments were set up, military, economic, judicial and political with the latter, which had its own intelligence and police, under future Ustaše leader Major Slavko Kvaternik. [21]

System of occupation

The first measure of the occupiers was the inauguration of a new legal system that would prevent guerilla resistance and exploit Serbia’s economic resources, for this the Austro-Hungarian control over the population was done in accordance with "Directives for the Political Administration in the Areas of the General Military Governorate in Serbia" (Direktiven für die politische Verwaltung im Bereiche des Militärgeneralgouvernements in Serbien) and "General Principles for the Imperial and Royal Military Administration in the Occupied Territories of Serbia" (Allgemeine Grundzüge für die K.u.K Militärverwaltung in den beset-zen Gebieten Serbiens). MGG/S intended to ignore Hungarian objections and integrate Serbia as a part of the empire, but as an area which would remain under direct military rule for decades after the end of the war and where political participation would be prohibited as to prevent the re-emergence of a new Serbian state. [22]

Life under the occupation

Denationalization and depoliticization of the population

Damaged buildings in Šabac, western Serbia.

The policies of the Military Governorate of Serbia aimed to depoliticize and denationalize the Serb population since political and national awareness were perceived by the army to be the existential danger to the empire; [23] public assembly and political parties were banned, the Cyrillic alphabet was termed staatsgefährlich (dangerous to the state) and banned from schools and public spaces, streets were renamed and traditional Serbian clothing was proscribed. All Serbian students had to educated in the German language, according to Austrian academic standards and teachers were brought from Austria. [24]

Publishing houses and bookshops were closed down. Political expression was severely limited with the prohibition of newspaper publication, except the official organ of propaganda MGG/S's Belgrader Nachrichten (published in Serbian as Beogradske novine), which featured letters and attractive photographs dwelling heavily upon the normality of life in the homeland. [25] [b]


The fear of a levée en masse captured the imagination of the army, causing it to engage in conflict with the population through hostage-taking, reprisals, and summary justice; military law was employed to overcome Serbian national resistance and severe preventive measures were undertaken against civilians. Disarming the populace was done by holding village elders responsible for handing over a certain quota of weapons that were judged to be held before the war began. [26]

There were summary executions at the hands of the Austro-Hungarian authorities with little or no legal process. Military courts even tried Serbians for the crime of lèse-majesté. [27] If civilians were suspected to be engaging in resisting, they would face the harshest measures, including hanging and shooting. The house of the offending Serbian’s family would also be destroyed. [28]

Public execution of alleged Serb partisans by Habsburg troops c.1916

The Serbian victims were preferably executed by means of the gallows on the main squares of villages and towns, forcing the population to attend the executions. The lifeless bodies were left to hang by the noose for several days so as to clearly show the treatment reserved to ‘spies’ and ‘traitors’ by the Austro-Hungarian army. [29]

Deportation and forced labour

During the occupation between 150,000 and 200,000 men, women, and children were deported to camps. A large portion of Serbian political, intellectual and cultural elite had left the country already during the Serbian army's retreat through Albania, the remaining ones, including many university professors, teachers, and priests, especially those who had participated in political, cultural or even sports societies were arrested by the authorities and deported. In addition to those despatched to concentration camps in Hungary, some 30,000 Serb civilians were sent to Austrian camps or used as forced labour. [12]

There were four significant waves of deportation: at the start of the occupation in 1915 when Governor-General Salis-Seewis rounded up 70,000 ‘dissidents’ in internment camps, [30] after Romania entered the war, this period saw the largest-scale deportations, it took place from mid-August to the end of October 1916 after an order to arrest all male aged between seventeen and fifty capable of military service as well as former soldiers was issued. [31]; during the Toplica uprising more deportation took place and finally after the breakthrough on the Salonica front in 1918. [32]

Those large scale deportations caused concern around Europe, in April 1917 the Vatican intervened, through the office of the Roman Catholic Church in Austria, against the internment of women and Serbian children between ten and fifteen years old in camps. [33]

Economic exploitation and Famine

Austro-Hungarian reports on the state of Serbia in 1915 noted famine threatening the occupation zone and a population in a desperate state after nearly four years of constant war. Late 1915 reports spoke of the necessity of receiving urgent relief to avoid disaster. The return of refugees exacerbated the shortage of food. Harvest yields and produced goods had to be turned over to authorities; food was rationed, Serbia was to become the breadbasket for the army. Tensions between Austrian and German authorities increased after Baron Burián complained that the German military was employing a ruthless system of requisition resulting in famine and pauperisation of the population. [11] The exploitation of mines failed to satisfy the need for vital raw materials because Germany took two-thirds of all production from Serbia as reparations for its military aid. [34]

News of the famine happening in Serbia spread across the world, American, Swiss and Swedish humanitarian organisations offered assistance. According to Red Cross reports, starvation killed more than 8,000 Serbs during the first winter, at the same time figures from the Habsburg High Command reported that 170,000 cattle, 190,000 sheep, and 50,000 pigs had been exported to Austria-Hungary by mid-May 1917. [35]


Immediately after the withdrawal of the Serbian army and the introduction of the military government, armed individuals and small groups of insurgents, made of former soldiers who had remained in the country, started to appear with the clear intention of waging a guerrilla campaign against the occupying forces. [36] Komitadjis as the Army frequently called Serb chetniks were deemed outside international law and were to be ‘completely wiped out’. In March 1916, General Conrad von Hötzendorf ordered that all resistance be destroyed with ruthless severity. [37]

Town officials and citizens were warned to not give or accept bribes. In Kruševac, the local military commander forbade any bribery, corruption, or defamation of "loyal citizens". Former Prime Minister of Serbia Jovan Avakumović attempted to suggest to Governor-General Johann Graf Salis-Seewis to issue a joint proclamation for the restoration of peace and order. Avakumović's proposal was turned down, and the suggestion that he sign his name next to Salis-Seewis angered the Governor so much that it led to Avakumović's arrest and internment. [38]

In late September 1916, the Serbian High Command flew in the experienced chetnik guerrilla leader Kosta Milovanović Pećanac from Thessaloniki to organize resistance in Serbia. In February 1917, a large scale uprising broke out in the Toplica District in the Bulgarian occupation zone of Morava, a force of 4,000 armed men and women managed to liberate an area in the Morava valley before the uprising was put down. The Austro-Hungarian military reported from the Summer of 1917 20,000 Serbs dead and the escape of 2,600 into the forests. [39] Despite the harsh repression, guerilla groups managed to survive and when the Allied offensive started in the Summer of 1918 they proved themselves to be very valuable. [40]


With the offensive on the Macedonian front and in particular the success of Entente troops at Dobro Pole, Bulgarian troops could not resist and capitulated on 29 September. New Austro-Hungarian and German troops sent from Ukraine were unable to stop Serbian troops as part of Allied forces advancing north. On 29 October Governor-General von Rhemen and his staff left the country, the next day on 30 October Belgrade was liberated by Serbian troops, after four years of occupation the country was free of foreign presence. [41]

Military commanders and governors

Personnel list of the Military General Gouvernement in Serbia 1916

Austro-Hungarian Commanders

Austro-Hungarian Military Governors-general

See also


  1. ^ This division was the only one designated Domobran or home-guard, with the right for officers to use the Croat language instead of German or Hungarian. [17]
  2. ^ Croat patrols on the front line were to approach Serbian posts and deposit propaganda material such as Belgrader Nachrichten in order to encourage desertion by promising freedom to those longing to return home. [25]



  1. ^ Luthar 2016, p. 77.
  2. ^ Schindler 2015, p. 177.
  3. ^ Merrill 2001, p. 167.
  4. ^ Jeřábek 1991, p. 25.
  5. ^ a b Kramer 2008, p. 140.
  6. ^ Hastings 2013, p. 226.
  7. ^ Holzer & Spiegel 2008.
  8. ^ Levental & Kordić 1992, p. 70.
  9. ^ Kiraly et al. 1985, p. 569.
  10. ^ Pavlowitch 2002, p. 122.
  11. ^ a b Fried 2014, p. 121.
  12. ^ a b Calic & Geyer 2019, p. 166.
  13. ^ a b c d Mitrović 2007, p. 203.
  14. ^ Fried 2014, p. 169.
  15. ^ Mitrović 2007, p. 183.
  16. ^ Bled 2014.
  17. ^ a b Vukcevich 2012, p. 63.
  18. ^ a b Buttar 2016, p. 43.
  19. ^ a b Höbelt, Otte & Bridge 2010, p. 257.
  20. ^ a b Schweizerische Offiziersgesellschaft 1968, p. 386.
  21. ^ Jarman 1997, p. 261.
  22. ^ Fried 2014, p. 203.
  23. ^ Gumz 2014, p. 21.
  24. ^ Mitrović 2007, p. 232.
  25. ^ a b Cornwall 2000, p. 64.
  26. ^ Mitrović 2007, p. 227.
  27. ^ De Schaepdrijver 2016, p. 105.
  28. ^ DiNardo 2015, p. 68.
  29. ^ Holzer 2014, p. 241.
  30. ^ Herwig 2014, p. 164.
  31. ^ Mitrović 2007, p. 228.
  32. ^ Luthar 2016, p. 76.
  33. ^ Djordjevic 2015, p. 127.
  34. ^ Herwig 2014, p. 239.
  35. ^ Calic & Geyer 2019, p. 157.
  36. ^ Tasic 2020, p. 20.
  37. ^ Mitrović 2007, p. 247.
  38. ^ Luthar 2016, p. 78.
  39. ^ Mitrović 2007, p. 261.
  40. ^ Moal 2008, p. 128.
  41. ^ Tasic 2020, p. 22.
  42. ^ Rauchensteiner, Kay & Güttel-Bellert 2014, p. 176.
  43. ^ Tucker & Roberts 2005, p. 933.
  44. ^ Dawnay & Headlam 1933, p. 238.
  45. ^ DiNardo 2015, p. 47.
  46. ^ Rauchensteiner, Kay & Güttel-Bellert 2014, p. 987.



  • Holzer, Anton; Spiegel, Der (2008-10-06). "Geschichte". Erster Weltkrieg (in German).
  • Cahoon, Ben (1941-04-17). "Serbia". World