Primary Documents - Statement by the League of Neutral Countries on Bulgaria's Occupation of Serbia, 1917

Serbian infantrymen Reproduced below is the text of a statement released by the Holland Section of the League of Neutral Countries in 1917.  Dealing with the mistreatment of Serbians by Bulgarian forces following the latter's entry into Serbia, the statement details a catalogue of atrocities conducted by the Bulgars, both officially and otherwise.

Click here to read the statement issued by the Bulgarian Peace Delegation to the 1919 Paris Peace Conference on the subject.

Report from the Holland Section of the "League of Neutral Countries," 1917 by Dr. Niermeijer

Deportations from Serbia began with the driving forth of 5,000 men, women, and children by the Austrians at the time of the occupation of Belgrade.  Because of bad housing and insufficient food one-half of these unfortunates succumbed to typhoid fever in less than a year.

The Bulgarians made their first use of deportations in the countries that had been given to Serbia by the peace of Bucharest in 1913, notably in Southern Serbia and a part of Macedonia.  Thus they deported into Bulgaria almost all the Serbian families of Prizren and Prishtina; from Prilep, 170; from Krushevo, 70.

At the end of 1915 an order was given to assemble and conduct away all the male population between the ages of 15 and 70 years from the districts of Veles, Poretch, and Prilep, where already torrents of blood had been shed.

The Bulgarian Bishop of Kitchevo, who had just been appointed, protested.  He wrote to King Ferdinand that such a measure would demonstrate to the whole world that Macedonia sympathized with Serbia and not with the Bulgarians.

This argument may have had some effect; at any rate, the King ordered that the deportations should cease, although the men might already be on the road.  However, 500 notables and their families were selected and interned in the environs of Sofia.  Their property was immediately confiscated by the Bulgarian Government and most of their houses were rented to Mohammedans.

When the Rumanians declared war the deportations were continued in still greater numbers, both by the Austrians and by the Bulgars, reaching their maximum after the capture of Monastir.

The victims always included men, women, and children, but especially men of 17 to 70 years.  A special method was applied to boys.  In May, 1916, the reopening of the schools was announced, and the enrolment lists were accessible.  The Austro-Hungarian authorities had the lists copied, and the deportations were based on these.

Not less than nine internment camps for Serbs were established in Austria-Hungary, three of the principal ones being situated in the Danube marshes, where the health conditions are extremely bad; the most distant are the camps of Heinrichsgrils in Bohemia and Braunau in Upper Austria, near the German frontier.

In that at Braunau there are not less than 35,000 Serbians; it is quite correct, therefore, to speak of deportations en masse.  Among these interned prisoners one finds high officials of the Serbian Government, members of the Council of State, Deputies, besides physicians, lawyers, merchants, etc.

The sanitary conditions are very bad in these places, where the Serbs are obliged to live in great wooden barracks that are penetrated by wind and rain; they are ill-fed, and are compelled to sleep upon straw on the ground, where the children especially are dying in great numbers.  At Braunau there was an epidemic of typhus.

Like the Austrians and Hungarians, the Bulgars have been making deportations since July 1916, from all the Serbian territory they occupy.  The northern part of the country is subject to Bulgarian rule.  The families deported by the Bulgarians alone in the last six months of 1916 are estimated at 10,000.

The Bulgarians are inhumane in their treatment of prisoners.  They do not permit these unfortunates to prepare themselves, or to take away from their homes even the most indispensable articles, as the Germans do in Belgium.  At Nish prominent persons were made prisoner in the streets without permitting them to say good-by to their families.

The largest Serbian internment camp in Bulgaria is situated in a swampy plain near Sofia, where the families are housed in miserable sheds, and where they are dying of cold, hunger, and wretched sanitary conditions.  Thus without any military necessity a part of the Serbian population has been systematically killed.

What is the object of such actions?  The answer will be found in what follows.

It has long been known that the Museum of Belgrade was pillaged immediately after the Austrian occupation.  The same thing has happened to the Ethnographical Museum, which contained objects of high value.  Not a single souvenir of the history or the life of the nation has been left there.

The Bulgars have gone still further; they have deported into Bulgaria all the priests of the Serbian Church.  The Bulgarian Synod has sent priests from Bulgaria and subjected all the occupied country to the Bulgarian Exarchate, which was obtained by force from the Sultan in 1871, but which the other Orthodox Greek Churches regard as schismatic.

All the Serbian churches and convents have been pillaged.  All the inscriptions recording the foundation of these institutions by Serbian Princes have been broken with axes.  The famous convents of Ravanitza and Manassia have suffered most, though they date from the thirteenth century and had been respected even by the Turks.

Furthermore, whatever the Bulgars have found written in the Serbian language they have destroyed absolutely.  With this object they have made house-to-house search, and have confiscated all the books and manuscripts, even those of the churches, courts, and archives. All these were burned - until the Minister of Commerce at Sofia ordered all papers to be sent to the national printing office, stating that they would make good material for manufacturing paper.

Immediately after occupation the Bulgarian authorities compelled the Serbs, whose family names usually end in "itch," to change that termination to "off," like those of Bulgarian families.

Naturally, it was also at Belgrade that the Serbian teachers were interned; they were replaced by Bulgarians and the Bulgarian language was made compulsory. The children were compelled to learn the popular Bulgarian songs and heard the war explained from the Bulgar viewpoint; they were given to. understand that henceforth they were Bulgarians.

A great number of reading rooms were opened, whose names recall Bulgarian patriots, and through these centres the authorities are spreading every sort of writing in favour of Bulgarian chauvinism.  Thus they are trying to kill the spirit of the Serbian people.

As long ago as October 1916, Prime Minister Pashitch formulated a protest in the name of the Serbian Government against the recruiting of Serbs by the Bulgars.  Since then the Serbian Government has received many Bulgarian newspapers that speak openly of such recruiting.

These publications refer to Macedonia, but from other sources it is learned that compulsory recruiting has also been introduced into Old Serbia, so that thousands of Serbs have been forced to fight in the Bulgarian army against their own country.

We do not know whether Bulgaria has denied this accusation, which is extremely grave.

In Macedonia the Bulgars began immediately after their arrival to put to death the authorities of cities and towns.  These murders reached extreme proportions in the three districts of Macedonia which we have mentioned in connection with deportations.

The deported victims were generally the objects of the greatest cruelty.  Some were obliged to make the journey on foot, poorly clad, without shoes, in the terrible cold; they were given only half a loaf of bread a week.  The Bulgarian soldiers drove them onward with blows from rifle stocks, like cattle; many died on the way.

The Austrian soldiers acted with the same brutality, driving children with the bayonet, so that many had to be taken to the hospital at Szegedin; women about to become mothers were forced to march with the rest.

Many priests were killed by the Bulgarian troops.  By a refinement of cruelty the Serbs who fled are prevented from corresponding with their families who remained behind.

We have believed in these circumstances that it was our duty to cite the facts more in detail than ordinarily.  Before the Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian Governments can clear themselves of the odium imposed by this simple enumeration of facts, they will have to try to draw up a denial of its truth.

We believe that such a denial will be very difficult to formulate.

The mass of documents placed at our disposal has left a profound impression of an attempt to achieve the complete ruin of a free nation by means the most brutal and cruel.

Among all the horrors of war practiced en masse against an entire nation, the worst certainly is the wholesale murder of the Armenians by the Turks under the indifferent or approving eye of the Germans.

The systematic destruction of the Serbian Nation is a pendant to the enslavement of Belgium.  The latter, perhaps, has suffered more in certain regards, because it is nearer to one of the fronts, but in other respects there is something still more grave in the treatment inflicted upon the Serbians; and the civilized world has known less about it.

Le Tenips of Paris has expressed a desire to see the neutral Governments realize that they also have signed the international conventions which have been violated, adding that now is the moment to protest, since they have neglected thus far to do so.

We also have formerly expressed the same hope, but our disillusionment has been too great; we will not return to that prayer again.

Happily the neutrals that have the power to do so are going to oppose themselves to these crimes, abandoning their neutrality.  The only thing we can do is to take care that, later, no one can say that from Holland no voice was raised against such barbarities.

Permanent Committee of the League of Neutral Countries:
DE LA FAILLE, Home Secretary
DIEPENBROCK, Foreign Secretary

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. IV, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923

French tanks were used for the first time in battle on 17 April 1917, when the 'Char Schneider' (as they were known) was used during the Second Battle of the Aisne.

- Did you know?

Primary Docs