Pursuit of an 'Unparalleled Opportunity'
The American YMCA and Prisoner of War Diplomacy among the Central Power Nations
during World War I, 1914-1923.
by Kenneth Steuer

Prison Camps


Austro-Hungarian Prison Camps

Austria Hungary During World War I, Austria-Hungary incarcerated over one million Allied prisoners of war.  Most of these prisoners came from Russia, but there was also a large number of Serbian, Italian, and Romanian POW's represented in this total.  The majority of prisoners held by the Dual Monarchy, over 830,000, spent the war in Austrian prisons.   The Hungarians incarcerated a much smaller number, less than 220,000 captives.  The Austro-Hungarians received their first large influx of Russian prisoners during the first year of the war during campaigns in Russian Poland and the Carpathian Front.  Russian POW's continued to flow into Austro-Hungarian prisons as the Central Powers advanced along the Eastern Front until the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918 ended the fighting in Russia.  Serbian POW's flooded Dual Monarchy prison camps after the successful Austro-German-Bulgarian offensive against Serbia in October 1915.  The Romanian government's decision to declare war on Austria-Hungary in August 1916 resulted in large numbers of Romanian prisoners of war falling into Dual Monarchy hands by December 1916 when the Germans, Austro-Hungarians, and Bulgarians occupied Wallachia.  The Austro-Hungarians gained approximately 300,000 Italian prisoners of war as a result of the Battle of Caporetto in October 1917 as Austro-German forces broke out of their alpine redoubts and advanced south to the Piave River in northeastern Italy.

In relation to prison camps in other countries, the Austro-Hungarians established large military prison facilities on the concentration camp model.  These prisons held from 40,000 to almost 100,000 prisoners and the Ministry of War designed these facilities with economies of scale in mind.  The Austro-Hungarian Ministry of War constructed most of their military prison camps from scratch, utilizing POW labor to build the facilities (with the exception of camps in the III Army Corps district in Upper Austria, where the Austrians established POW operations in reserve hospitals and troop barrack facilities).  They established the majority of these prison camps near major railway lines, which supported the transportation of prisoners and supplies.  The Kriegsministerium, or Ministry of War, supervised the operation of military prison camps, while the Innenministerium, or Ministry of the Interior, administered the civilian internment camps.  For the most part, the civilian internment camps were much smaller in scale in relation to military prison camps and the imperial authorities tended to set up civilian prisons in castles or barracks constructed before the war.  Civilian internment camps greatly outnumbered military prison camps and included a wide range of facilities such as work camps, quarantine stations, punishment stations, confinement stations, as well as large prison camps.

In the Dual Monarchy, the military operated two separate prison camp systems: one for the Austrian Empire and the other for the Kingdom of Hungary.  Since Austria had the greatest number of Allied POW's, the Austrians also operated a larger number of military prison camps.  The Austrians maintained twenty-eight principle prison camps, Stammlager, in five army corps districts.  These facilities were located in Lower Austria (Niederösterreich) in the II Army Corps district (Vienna); in Upper Austria (Oberösterreich) in the III Army Corps district (Graz); in southern Bohemia in the VIII Army Corps district (Prague); in northern Bohemia in the IX Army Corps district (Leitmenitz); and in Salzburg and the Tyrol in the XIV Army Corps district (Innsbrück).  Camp commanders reported directly to the army corps commander in their respective military districts regarding camp operations and administration.  With a smaller number of prisoners, there were eleven Stammlager in Hungary.  Most of these principle prison camps were located in the IV, V, and VI Army Corps districts, with one in the VII Army Corps region.  Unlike Austrian officers, all Hungarian prison camp commandants reported to the same headquarters at the V Army Corps at Pozsony (Pressburg).

Like Germany, Austria-Hungary found it expensive to incarcerate large numbers of Allied prisoners in prison camps when general labor was in short supply due to military mobilization.  As a result, the Austro-Hungarians implemented Arbeitkommandos (labor detachments) to support the war economy.  In Austria, many of these prisoners worked in factories and raw material extraction industries.  Because of the effectiveness of the Allied blockade, POW's in Austria suffered from lower nutritional standards in relation to prisoners in Hungary.  As an agrarian state, labor detachments in Hungary worked primarily on farms where prisoners had easier access to food supplies.  Like Germany, Russian, Serbian, and Romanian prisoners suffered greatly from the lack of food parcels from home simply because these nations lacked the resources to support their incarcerated soldiers.  The Italian prisoners enjoyed a higher standard of living until the Caporetto disaster in October 1917.  Because of the huge number of prisoners taken in the Austro-German offensive, the Italian government branded these POW's as deserters and cut off food parcel shipments.  The reduction in food rations greatly contributed to health problems among the Italian prisoner population by the end of the war.

There were also political ramifications for POW's in the Dual Monarchy during the war.  The Austro-Hungarian government immediately interned a considerable number of Polish and Czech civilians whom the government considered political liabilities in an attempt to quell nationalist aspirations among the subject peoples of the empire.  Simultaneously, the Austrians supported the formation of the Polish Legion, under Marshal Joseph Pilsudski.  These Polish volunteers fought for the independence of Russian Poland and the reestablishment of an independent Polish state.  After it became clear that the Germans and Austro-Hungarians planned to set up a protectorate in Poland through the Regency Council in Warsaw, Pilsudski and most members of the Polish Legion refused to take the oath of allegiance to the new Polish government.  In response, the Germans and Austrians incarcerated Pilsudski and these legionnaires in prison camps.  The Dual Monarchy also set up special propaganda camps for Russian POW's from the Ukraine and Georgia, operations which provided these prisoners with better food and living conditions.  Included in this propaganda program was instruction in Ukrainian and Georgian, an education policy banned by the imperial Russian government.  The Austro-Hungarians had post-war imperial aspirations for these tsarist lands and the first step in this policy was to win the hearts and minds of these POW's in support of Hapsburg goals.  At the other extreme of POW treatment, the Austro-Hungarians did not hesitate to execute minorities who had defected to the Allies in support of nationalist objectives.  The Dual Monarchy held court martial hearings on the Italian and Eastern Fronts to try captured members of the Czechoslovak Legion and other national armies which often resulted in summary executions.

Austro-Hungarian Army1

In July 1914, the pre-mobilized Austro-Hungarian Army consisted of approximately 450,000 men, organized into six armies of sixteen army corps.  While Infantry General Archduke Friedrich served as the Supreme Commander of the Austro-Hungarian Army, he deferred strategic planning to Infantry General Franz Conrad von Hötzendorff, the Chief of the General Staff, who was responsible for military operations and tactics.

Cavalry General Viktor Graf von Dankl commanded the 1st Army, with army headquarters located in Vienna.  The I Army Corps, based in Cracow (Krakau), V Army Corps, with headquarters in Pressburg (Pozsony), and X Army Corps, operating from Przemysl, came under the command of the 1st Army.  The 2nd Army, led by Cavalry General Eduard Freiherr von Böhm-Ermolli, had its headquarters in Budapest.  The Austro-Hungarian General Staff assigned three army corps to the 2nd Army: IV Army Corps, based in Budapest; VIII Army Corps, with headquarters in Prague; and XII Army Corps, set up in Hermannstadt (Nagyszeben).  Cavalry General Rudolph Ritter von Brudermann commanded the 3rd Army and also had his headquarters in Vienna.  This army consisted of the III Army Corps, based in Graz, VII Army Corps, operating from Temesvàr, and XI Army Corps, with headquarters in Lemberg.  The 4th Army was also based in the imperial capital and was commanded by Infantry General Moritz Freiherr Auffenberg von Komarów.  This army included the III Army Corps, with headquarters in Graz, VI Army Corps, based in Kassa (Kaschau), and IX Army Corps, operating from Leitmeritz.  Infantry General Liborius Ritter von Frank commanded the 5th Army, which had its headquarters in Agram (Zagreb).  Only the XIII Army Corps, based in Agram, reported to the 5th Army command staff.  The 6th Army, with headquarters in Sarajevo, was the most important political command in the Austro-Hungarian Army, as a result of the military administration of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Artillery General Oskar Potiorek was the commander of the 6th Army and he led two army corps, XV Army Corps, based in Sarajevo, and XVI Army Corps, with headquarters in Ragusa.  The XIV Army Corps, operating out of Innsbrück, did not report to an army command.

By 1914, Conrad, as the Austro-Hungarian Chief of Staff, developed two pre-war plans for the mobilization and deployment of the army in the next war. Conrad designed Variation R for a potential war against both Russia and Serbia. It called for the deployment of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Armies to Galicia to fight against the Russian Army, leaving the weaker 5th and 6th Armies to defend the border with Serbia.  The Austro-Hungarian General Staff developed Variation B for a future war against Serbia and Montenegro, with the assumption that Russia would remain neutral (the General Staff predicted that this plan was more likely to occur). Under Variation B, the 2nd, 5th, and 6th Armies would invade Serbia from the north and west while the 1st, 3rd, and 4th Armies maintained a defensive line against the Russians in Galicia.  When Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia in late July 1914, the imperial general staff implemented Variation B and launched an invasion of the Serbian kingdom. Stiff Serbian resistance and the Russian decision to enter the war required the Austro-Hungarians to revise their original war plans. Rather than a quick and decisive victory over Serbia, Austria-Hungary became involved in a two front war, which extended to a third front in west after Italy declared war against the Dual Monarchy in May 1915.


Note 1: Source: Girard Lindsley McEntee. Military History of the World War: A Complete Account of the Campaigns on All Fronts. New York, NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1937, 28-30. back