*** World War I -- Central Powers occupation of Serbia

World War I: Occupied Serbia (1915-18)

occupied Serbia World War I
Figure 1.--This unidentified photograph shows German and Austrian soldiers in what looks like a Balkan setting. We believe it is either Bosnia or occupied Serbia. Perhas Bosnian or Serbian readers can provide some insights on this.

While the Central Powers did not destroy the Serbian Army, they did occupy all of Serbia. After Belgium in the west, Serbia was the second Allied country occupied by the Central Powers. The Central Powers occupied Serbia during 1916, 1917, and most of 1918, nearly 3 years. We have little information at this time on the Austrian-German occupation. Serbian sources report that Croats and Muslims commited atrocities on Serb civilians. This is a highly politicized topic. We know that terrible attrocities occurred during World war II, butwe can not yet confiem just what happened in occupied Serbia. I am not sure just what occurred in the wake of the Austrian-German advance. We have so far been unable to find any reliable account as to what occurred. The fact that so many young men left Serbia part of the Army retreat, we suspect that many Serb families experienced difficult conditions and that food production declined. We note reports of war crimes against civilians. The Bulgarians reportedly initiated efforts to Bulgarize civilians in their occupation zone.

Occupation Zones

The Austrians and Bulgars established occupation zones after their 1915-16 victory, partitioning Serbia. We do not know what the precise boundaries were. Presumably the Bulgarians occupied the south and the Austrians the north. The two countries occupied Serbia for nearly 3 years. We do not know to what extent either country moved to actually annex occupied areas before the Allied offensive north from Greece and the end of the War achieved the liberation of Serbia

Bulgarizing Policies

The Bulgars attempted to Bulgarize the Serb population in their occuption zone. We are not sure at this time just what policies they persued. Bulgarian efforts seemed to have focused on language policies. They banished printing in the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet. Presumably school instruction also changed, but here we do not yet have derails. The Bulgars also banned the Serbian Orthodox Church. The Bulgars were also Orthodox. Presumably the Bularian Orthodox Church extended its authority to the Serbian churches. The Bulgars also began conscroting Serbs into the Bulgarian Army.

Food Situation

Serbia was a largely agricultural country. The fact that so many young men were in the military and killed or left Serbia as part of the Army retreat. The Central Powers had full control of Serbia by 1916. We suspect that many Serb families experienced difficult conditions and that food production declined. What this meant in the availability of food we do not know. We do know know that Austrians and Bulgars used Serbia as a source of food as food shortages developed throughout the Central Powers. There were also German troops in Serbia. The Austrian and Bulgar military government officials seized food stocks creating a humanitarian disaster. This was what the Germans did in Belgium. We are not sure about the extent of the seizures. A factor here was that Serbia was not as urbanuized as Belgium, but unlike Belgium, America was unable to arrange food deliveries to civilians until the allies eentered Serbia (1918) . Serbia officials charged that the Austrianb food seizures that the resulting food shortages caused deaths from starvation and disease (typhus) despite the favt that Setbia was an agricultural food producing country. The serbs believe thst some 365,000 Serbian civilians died as a result of the food seizures. [Bell, p. 576.]

War Crimes

We note reports of war crimes against civilians. They were not as well publicized as German activities in Belgium which were used by the British to inflame American public opinion. A Swiss professor by the name of Rodolphe Archibald Reiss was a Professor of Criminology at the University of Lausanne. He was at the turn of the century one of the the foremost Criminal pathologist in Europe. The Serbian Government called upon him as a neutral observer to investigate war crimes committed by Austro-Hungary against the civilian population. His report covered the period September-November 1914 before the Germans and Bularians joined the Austrians and the joint Central Powers offensive achieved a victory leading to the occupation of all Serbia. It does, however, offer some clus as to what may have happened during the occupation. The preface by tghe Serbian Government begins, "The barbarous methods of warfare and the cruelties toward the civil population of an invaded country, such have been practiced by the German Army in Belgium, have been faithfully imitated by her Austraian ally in Serbia." Professor Reiss divided his findings intoo six areas: 1) Explosive bullets and dum-dum bullets, 2) Bombardment of open towns and the destruction of buildings, 3) Massacres of Serbian prioners and wounded, 4) Massacres of civilans, 5) Pillage and destruction of house prperty, and 6) Review of the causes of the massacres. The repoert is a daming assessmnent of the conduct of the Austrian Army during the initial fifgting. We do not know, however, what went on after the Serbian Armny was defeated and Serbia was occupied.

Toplica Uprising (1917)

The Allies opened a new front at Salomika in Greece (June 1917). The Serbian Army was part of the force, but was unable to break through the Bulgarian lines. Chetnik guerilla units had proven valuable in the Balksn Wars. Serbian commanders sent covert agents into occupied Serbia to organize Chetnik guerill units. There orders were to organize, but launch a rebellion until the Allies were in a posdition to support them. Important leadedrs were Kosta Milovanovic Pecanac and Kosta Vojinovic. Serbian restraint was a realizition that the Bulgars would react brutally and carry out reprisals on civilians. Even so, Bulgar conscription effors caused a spontaneous uprising (February 1917). Serbian rebels briefly liberated an area between the Kopaonik mountains and the South Morava River. A joint Bulgarian and Austrian force quickly supressed the rebels a restored Bulgarian control (late-March 1917). And as forseen, the Bulgars conducted a series of bloody reprisals on Serb civilians, [Tomasevich, pp. 117-118.] The Allies finally broke through on the Salomnika Front (1918). As the Serbian Army reached Serbia and began the liberation, they were supported by Chetnik units.


Bell, A.C. The Blockade of the Central Empires Restricted use, 1937. Published after World War II (HMSO: London, 1987). Here Bell relied on Serbian data.

Reiss, Rodolphe Archibald. F.S. Copeland (trans.) "Report upon the atrocities committed by the Austro-Hungarian army during the first invasion of Serbia," (Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co., Ltd.: London, 1916).

Tomasevich, Jozo. The Chetniks


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Created: 9:38 AM 4/20/2011
Last updated: 3:21 PM 11/8/2022