This is a translation of an article that first appeared in German in the Austrian newspaper "Die Presse".  The area concerned can be found on Google maps - area map

Kazakhstan:  the road of the Austrian prisoners

Austrian and German prisoners were transported in 1915 to the Altai Mountains in Eastern Kazakhstan.  There, they worked as forced labourers and built the “Austrian road”, a breath-taking pass through the mountains.

By Edda Schlager

Katon-Karagai: “This road should not be travelled alone”, warned Fjodor Scherschnjow, a giant with beard and glasses, meaning the mountain pass to the high mountain lake, Lake Markakol.  In the next few days it became clear that the 53-year old was not only correct but also has a singular knowledge of the Kazak Altai on the border between Russia and China.

The road which Fjodor warned about is the so-called Austrian Road, a 130km long connection from Katon-Karagai to the centre of the National Park of the same name, over the Altai pass to Lake Markakol.

Why does the road have this name, here in remotest Kazakhstan, more than 5000km from Austria? “The road was built in the First World War by Austrian prisoners” explains Fjodor. That is confirmed by everyone that one asks here.  However, few know any more than that, except Fjodor.  He is actually an electrician, but he loves the Altai Mountains where he was born and has collected many stories and myths from the region round his hometown of Katon-Karagai.  He says that he has been interested in the history of the “Austrian Road” since he was a child.

An unknown chapter in history

In 1915, around 150 to 300 soldiers of the KuK (Austro-Hungarian army) were brought here as PoWs.  Fjodor was told this by his grandparents.  The KuK monarchy was at that time in an alliance with the Germany of Kaiser Wilhelm and was at war with the Tsar’s Russia, to which Kazahkstan at that time belonged.

“In 2008, our 104-year old neighbour died” recalls Fjodor; “and she had personal knowledge of the prisoners being here.”  From her memories he knew details of this almost forgotten chapter of the First World War.  In reality, hardly anything is known about the German and Austro-Hungarian PoWs in central Asia.

The Viennese historian Peter Felch confirmed that “Thanks to the overlay of the results of the Second World War and the equating of ‘PoW camps’ and ‘Siberia’, hardly anyone knows of the story of the Austrian road.  With the exception of a few historians and orientalists no-one knows that more than 200,000 Austrian, Hungarian and a few thousand German prisoners were held in about 40 camps in the former Russian region of Turkestan and in the Altai mountains, which today are parts of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kirgizstan.

According to Peter Felch, the PoWs were transported from the Eastern Front in trains right across the Russian empire to end up as forced labour in agriculture, or working on building roads, bridges or churches.

In a village street in Katon-Karagai, Fjodor showed us one of the simple farmer’s houses.  “This is the last one of the PoW quarters” he explained.  “There were ten such quarters which the PoWs had to build themselves using wood from the surrounding forest.  Back then, this district was outside the town; at the beginning it was strictly supervised, but later left they were left to themselves. They could not flee undetected.”

The task of the forced-labour PoWs was to be to build a road over the Altai pass to the south.  It served not only as a trade route but also a strategically important border road to neighbouring China.  The problem was the snow and rainfall between September and May.  Until today, the pass is only passable in summer.

With Fjodor and an old Russian 4x4, we go up eventually to the Altai pass.  In a series of hairpin bends, the dusty, crushed stone traces of the Austrian road wind upwards to the 2906 meter high peak of Altykyz before our eyes, then down into the valley of the river Kara-Kaba.

German engineering art

“A German or Austrian engineer must have managed the road construction” says Fjodor with conviction.  He battles through the bush at the side of the road for a bit.  The riverbed of the Kara-Kaba is wider here, and in the middle is a little island.  Over it stretches a fallen bridge of black wood, with moss growing over the wood.  “That is German specialist construction, do you see?” asks Fjodor.  Actually, the typical slanted beams are recognisable.  One hundred year old German engineering art in the middle of the Altai Mountains.  Five further timber-framed bridges exist today, Fjodor tells us, and regrets that these “monuments”, as he calls them, have not been preserved.

Again back in Katon-Karagai, Fjodor shows us the picturesquely located old cemetery.  “About 30 PoWs are buried here”, he tells us.  Individual graves are no longer recognisable, and there are no crosses with names.

Most of the PoWs would probably have remained until the end of the war.  “An orderly pull-out did not happen”, says Fjodor.  The majority have probably struggled through Russia, and from there tried to reach their homeland.  He would really like to know if any of them succeeded in reaching home.

Looking in the archives

Perhaps the historian Peter Felch will be able to bring light into the darkness.  He has, together with the Austrian Academy of Science, started a research project to find out more the fate of the PoWs in central Asia.  “From old church records and military archives a lot can be reconstructed.  We have even found the descendants of a Hungarian PoW in Uzbekistan”.  This year Peter Felch plans a trip to the Altai Mountains.

From the Austrian newspaper “Die Presse”, 23rd August 2014.