German and Austro-Hungarian War Crimes at the Start of World War One

Peter Curry

3 mins

28 Sep 2014

Image credit: Évariste Carpentier – Collection de l’Admnistration communale de Blégny

The most infamous war crimes of the western front in the Great War were conducted by the Germans in 1914 and are known collectively as the ‘Rape of Belgium’.

As Belgium was officially neutral after hostilities in Europe broke out and Germany invaded the country without explicit warning, this act was also in breach of the Treaty of London of 1839, and the 1907 Hague Convention on Opening of Hostilities.

Germany violated both of these treaties and proceeded to invade Belgium, and then in the early stages of the war, to commit a series of atrocities against the Belgian population.

The ruins of the library of the Catholic University of Leuven after it was burned in 1914. Credit: N.J. Boon / Commons.

These atrocities ranged from the looting and destruction of civilian property, to the destruction of medieval cities such as Leuven, to the mass rape of women and murder of Belgian citizenry.

This was done, supposedly, to flush out the Belgian guerrilla fighters or francs-tireurs, after the German invasion of Belgium in August 1914.

The Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia also relied on disproportionate violence against civilians to enforce control.

Reprisals and sanctioned killing in Belgium

During the German invasion, women were repeatedly raped and assaulted by advancing German soldiers.

German troops repairing a bridge in Dinant were attacked by citizens of the town. In retaliation they executed 600 of the townspeople, many of whom were not involved in the attack on the men fixing the bridge.

A few days later in Andenne, General von Bülow sanctioned the killing of 110 people and the destruction of the town.

World War I, US propaganda poster exemplifying the international perception of the Rape of Belgium. Credit: Ellsworth Young / Commons.

The German army seized the town of Leuven on 19 August 1914. On 25 August the Belgian army counter-attacked from Antwerp but did not recapture the town.

After the failure of the Belgian offensive, German officers blamed the Belgian counter-attack on the population of Leuven, authorising the destruction of the town and a series of executions.

German troops deliberately burnt the Leuven university library, with over 300,000 medieval manuscripts and books inside. The Germans also burnt thousands of civilian homes, killed hundreds of citizens of the town and expelled the entire population of the town.

Contemporary observers were particularly shocked by the prolific killing of women and members of the clergy. The action was so shocking that reports were not confined to Europe and it made the headlines of the New York Tribune.

The estimated civilian death toll for Leuven and the other massacres in the rape of Belgium is 6,000.

Overall, the Germans were responsible for the deaths of over 20,000 Belgian civilians, with over 30,000 injured or rendered permanently invalid. Almost 20,000 children lost their parents and became orphans.

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Austro-Hungarian retaliation to Serbian guerrillas

The origins of the First World War lay in Austro-Serbian antagonism. After all, the Black Hand Gang who had assassinated the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand had been Serbian. This meant when Austria did invade Serbia, tension was already very high.

Many Serbian civilians began to engage in guerrilla warfare against the invading forces, prompting reprisals.

These reprisals were even harsher than might have been expected, as the Austrian generals were normally old, and used to engaging in antiquated forms of warfare.

Shocked by Serbian guerrilla tactics, which did not fit neatly with their idea of warfare as pitched battles between two opposing armies, they retaliated brutally.

In the first two weeks of the campaign alone 3,500 Serbians were executed, many innocent.

The second round of hangings during a mass execution of Serbian civilians. The gallows were so wide that the photographer could not fit the entire structure in the photograph. Credit: Drakegoodman / Commons.

We have excellent evidence of these murders, because the Austrian commander Conrad von Hötzendorf ordered that the executions should be photographed, and well distributed, in order to make an example of other rebels.

These atrocities not only took place in 1914, but later, in the second invasion of Serbia in 1915.

Such was the flagrant disregard for human life that the Austrian soldiers queued to have their pictures taken with the bodies of the Serbs that they had just hung or shot.

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Later in the war, both sides would use poison gas, which would further contravene the limited humanitarian codes laid out before the First World War, and would lead to greater human rights regulation in the postwar period, although the effectiveness of such regulation would always be questionable.