History / Warfare

The July Crisis: Austria Starts Shooting

Today (or tomorrow depending what time zone the reader resides within) marks the 100th anniversary since the naval shelling that precipitated the First World War, fired from Austro-Hungarian warships cruising on the Danube and Sava Rivers, began to fall on Belgrade.  Matthew Yglesias has not (as of yet) marked this horrific anniversary; though undoubtedly he still believes the Serbs brought this upon themselves:

Serbia and its Russian superpower sponsor were genuinely trying to destroy the Habsburg empire. Franz Ferdinand’s assassins really did have ties to the Serbian state. He was assassinated in part because he was known to be a moderate who favored further decentralization of imperial authority and concessions to the interests of South Slavs, and Serbian nationalists thought his rise to power would undermine their effort to incorporate Bosnia, Croatia, and Slovenia into Serbia.* The authorities in Vienna and Berlin had a legitimate interest in pushing back against the attempted dismemberment of the Habsburg state. And then things got nasty in no small part thanks to French politicians having persuaded themselves that a Balkan crisis would be the best possible shot at teaming up with Russia to wage a war against Germany and take back Alsace and Lorraine. Nobody is blameless in the whole affair, but it’s much much more complicated than “Germans be starting wars.” The Entente powers were essentially sticking up for a state sponsor of terrorism.

Clearly, I disagree.  I believe proximity is everything in history, and the choice to begin firing is far more telling than an event that preceded the outbreak of war.  Granted, Gavrilo Princip did fire two bullets that took the lives of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, but this

Gavrilo Princip's Pistol.PNG

The .32 caliber pistol FN Model 1910 used by Gavrilo Princip. It is now part of the permanent exhibition in the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum in Vienna, Austria

…is not equivalent to the guns on these:

Austrian monitor bombarding Belgrade, 1914 or 1915

An Austrian monitor bombarding Belgrade

…and the disparities were about to get worse.  The First World War was an extremely ugly spectacle.  The full-scale Austrian invasion of Serbia commenced on 12 August 1914, and the troops were in a foul mood:

Civilians near the Austrian lines in Serbia are strung up – probably as a reprisal for guerrilla resistance to the invaders

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.

The Independent doesn’t include the photographs it describes, but I will (a picture is worth a thousand words, after all)…


…and no, these were not anti-Austrian propaganda generated by the Serbian resistance:

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 von Hortstein, 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”).

Must have been a catchy tune.

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.

AKA, these:



Subtle.  Sure, propaganda was and remains a potent tool to rally the masses in modern warfare, but am I alone in perceiving parallels between the Austrian crimes committed during the “Great” War and the SS/Wehrmacht massacres 25-30 years later (not to mention the Final Solution)?

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.”

The widespread massacres of Serbians at the hands of Austro-Hungarian soldiers indicate a full-on disregard for jus in bello, let alone common decency.  Not to mention the parallels between 1914-18 and 1939-45 atrocities are direct, historical linkages:

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.

Christopher Clark (Yglesias’s favorite historian) claims France and Russia “never acknowledged that Austria-Hungary had a right to countermeasures in the face of Serbian irredentism.”  Apparently those countermeasures centered around systemic genocide. 

Returning to Matthew Yglesias

But while Germany certainly did make one effort to conquer Europe, how you think about World War I really drives the question of whether there’s a pattern of German aggression or not. After all, Germany is hardly historically unique in terms of having once waged genocidal war in search of living space, but present-day American foreign policy initiatives aren’t typically read through the lens of the expropriation of Native Americans.

The better question is whether there’s a pattern of Germanic aggression.  I intend to answer this question.  I’m not finished with my deconstruction of the First World War.


3 thoughts on “The July Crisis: Austria Starts Shooting

  1. Pingback: Aggregate Demand Dominance: The Enigma of 1945 | In The Corner, Mumbling and Drooling

  2. Pingback: The July Crisis: 100 Years Ago This Month | In The Corner, Mumbling and Drooling

  3. Pingback: International Myths | In The Corner, Mumbling and Drooling

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