“There is no doubt that no Serb will spontaneously express any appreciation of what our allies are doing here.”
(Message of the German Consul in Belgrade to Emperor Wilhelm II)
In October of 1915, a massive joint offensive of the Austro-Hungarian, Bulgarian and German forces, commanded by the German General von Mackensen, overwhelmed the Serbian army and completed the conquest of the Balkans. After more than a year of resistance, the Serbs had recover to the Greek island of Corfu, under the protection of the Allied forces. Austria, after having undergone ruinous defeats in that theatre of war, finally managed to get their hands on Serbia and had every intention to exploit to a maximum the productive and natural resources. The new conquest, however, also represented a political problem. The diverse expectations of the Austrians and Hungarians clashed. For Austria, it was a priority to completely annihilate Serbia, annexing it entirely to the monarchy. The Hungarians, instead, pushed for a soft annexation, keeping Serbia with limited autonomy, sufficient to limit constant risks of insurrection and revolt. At the same time, the Hungarians pushed for a massive immigration of Germans and Hungarians into the annexed territories to encourage the process of integration in the empire.
Although the Austrian line prevailed, a compromise was found, allowing Hungary to annex the Balkan territories, while Vienna counted on expanding northeast into Russia. These were reasonable plans at a time when the outbreak of war seemed to encourage central empires.
Serbia was also entrapped between the annexionism of the Austro-Hungarians and that of the Bulgarians who, as allies, had the right to a consistent slice of territory to occupy.
These territories were subjected immediately to a forced Bulgarization plan. Draconian measures regarding the civil population were applied, justified by questions of security and policies intended to eliminate Serbian culture were implemented, which also affected other minorities. Deportations and forced internments were applied against adult males. In the first period of the occupation forced transfers hid true mass executions. The middle class was weakened through decimations, restrictive property laws, and replacement of the local language with Bulgarian. With the time, the repressive measures also were extended to the working class and responded to a predetermined plan of de-nationalisation of the new territories.
If the Bulgarian occupiers were not concerned with hiding their actions, the Austro-Hungarians seemed to respond to a different logic. Despite the final goal always being the elimination of Serbian nationalist sentiment, imperial propaganda depicted the occupation policies as civilising actions. How forced this pretext was could be seen in the attitude of German authorities who criticised Austrian policies in the Balkans that aimed to eliminate any form of social life. All organizations, including cultural and sports, were dissolved. Males of recruiting age were interned, deported, or subjected to forced labour, and although there were no systematic massacres as in the Bulgarian area, public executions were used frequently with the goal of frightening the population and punishing even minimal violations of occupation laws.
The process of eliminating Serbian cultural history also involved closing newspapers, interning writers and journalists, and dissolving masonic lodges. The Serbian historic and cultural heritage was uprooted; important relics and works of art were removed from museums and libraries and Serbian history books and literary works in Serbian were confiscated.
Austrian occupation policies, perpetrated with systematic ferocity, showed those opposed to them, primarily the Hungarians, to be right. The Balkan territories were a thorn in Austria’s side, unstable and subject to guerrilla actions, until the final offensive that broke down the occupation force in the summer and autumn of 1918.