Norms of war and the Austro-Hungarian encounter with Serbia, 1914–1918

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This essay first explores European assumptions regarding occupation and war in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These assumptions found their way into international law, but are best understood as a series of international norms. The article then goes on to examine how these norms changed over the course of the war, paying attention to the Austro-Hungarian occupation of Serbia from 1916 to 1918. The European approach to war within Europe attempted to contain the expansion of conflict and created a strict divide between civilian and military realms. Occupiers were to maintain the sovereignty of the departed government until the conclusion of a peace treaty, while the occupied population owed obedience to the occupier. Austria-Hungary's war against Serbia and subsequent occupation two years later placed heavy pressure on these pre-war norms. In some cases, such as the use of military law in occupied Serbia, Austria-Hungary departed entirely from these norms. As the war progressed, however, a growing realization that such norms of contained conflict also buttressed Austria-Hungary's place in the international system led Austria-Hungary to restrain its occupation of Serbia. While Austria-Hungary attempted to resituate itself and its occupation of Serbia back within these norms from mid-1917 forward, this attempt went largely unrecognized. Broadly seen, such international norms fell under severe pressure in Eastern Europe with the implosion of imperial sovereignties in this region, most notably that of Tsarist Russia.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)97-110
Number of pages14
JournalFirst World War Studies
Issue number1
Early online date15 Feb 2013
Publication statusPublished - 2013


  • Austria-Hungary
  • Serbia
  • occupation
  • norms
  • law


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