Occupation Pt. 2



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Premium episode 16. This is our second and final episode on what life was like in the occupied territories of Europe during World War 1 and this time we are taking our story to the east and into the areas of Russia that were captured by the Germans during the war. What happened in the east had some similarities with the situation in France and Belgium, although there were also many differences. The main differences started with the size of the area occupied, with hundreds of thousands of square kilometers captured by the Central Powers after 1915. This area was also far less densely populated and far less regulated and controlled by the Russians before the war, when compared to France and Belgium in the West, and this created a different climate and culture for the Germans to occupy as well as introducing new challenges. However, these were just surface level differences, there were other, more important, differences around how the Germans occupied the areas which revolving around how they judged the people within those areas. In these judgements can be seen long and deep seeded racism that, while resulting in negative consequences for the inhabitants, would also be amplified by the German experience to then be unleashed in a far more powerful form in the next war. To discuss this topic we will start with an overview of the situation in Poland where the Germans organized, exploited, and then tried to cajole the Polish people into helping in the war. Most of this episode however will focus on the situation to the north in the area of modern day Lithuania and Latvia, which was organized into the German administrative district named Ober Ost. This area, organized by Ludendorff himself and ran by the military, is an interesting area of study that I think says a lot about how Germans, and especially the German military, viewed the lands in the east and the people who lived there and also gives us a look into the German psyche as a whole.

When the Germans found themselves in control of most of Poland in late 1915 the question became how to administer the new area. While economic exploitation was the most important goal there were both long term plans to consider as well as questions about how to control such a large space. The Germans assumed that if they won the war they could be able to continue to rule over their section of Poland, since it would probably be split up with Austria Hungary, or at the very least they would continue to tightly control the areas and so some thought had to be given to both long term and short term administration. In Poland Germany would be in absolute control over the northern half of Poland and it was put under the control of Governor General von Beseler, even though it was commanded by a General it was still a civilian administration but Beseler was not a skilled or seasoned administrator. When he found out about his task though he took to it with gusto. He did a lot of reading about the history of Poland and the surrounding areas to try and get familiar with the situation that he was about to be put in charge of. Overall, over the course of his time as Governor General Beseler was a moderating influence on German policy. The Germans also setup a civilian administrative body that operated under the Governor General to take care of some of the smaller day to day administrative tasks. The biggest restraining factor was the fact that there were large numbers of ethnic Poles in both Germany and Austria-Hungary, many in important war industries, for example Polish seasonal workers were very important to the harvest in Eastern Germany. In fact, in 1914 when the war started there were 350,000 Polish workers in Germany, which caused a huge security concern even though it would not end up being a problem. The Polish minorities in both Germany and Austria-Hungary did not let their nationality get in the way of being concerned with their Polish brethren which put pressure on the governments to only go so far in their exploitation, although it was quite far. By the spring of 1916 there were over 500,000 Polish civilian workers in Germany, most of them had been brought in without their consent, and this almost entirely stripped some Polish regions of skilled workers. Along with hundreds of thousands of workers the Germans also, of course, took food. Just like in Romania Germany and Austria-Hungary ravenously ate through the Polish harvest. It reached the point later on the in the war that Austria-Hungary was sending new units, and even those that were just on leave from the front, to Poland because it was easier for them to get food there than in the Empire. In total Austria-Hungary estimated that 15% of the entire armies food came from the occupied territories. For the German troops they were allowed to send up to 5 kilogram parcels full of food back to their families in Germany, and this would eventually represent tens of thousands of tons of food in total. Overall, and even though the total harvest would decline on a year over year basis for the duration of the war, the occupiers were still able to take 1.2 million tons of grain, 220,000 tons of potatoes, millions of animals, and miles and miles of forests out of the country. This had the inevitable effect on the populations of the region with the amount of food available to Polish civilians drastically reduced. This caused hunger and malnutrition, especially in the larger cities where the death toll would rise not just from lack of food but also a lack of fuel, clothing, and cleaning supplies. Disease would run wild in Warsaw, claiming a death rate of double what it had been before the war. This level of exploitation did not prevent the Germans from trying to convince the Poles that they should join the German side in the last few years of the war. After 1916 there was a constant need for warm bodies at the front and so Falkenhayn and the other German leaders attempted to raise a Polish Army. To do this they produced a declaration in November 1916 that was given to the Poles from Germany and Austria-Hungary that discussed the post-war plans for their country. This included a pledge to make them an autonomous state, and to give them a constitutional monarchy to lead them. This type of arrangement sounds positive, but Germany and Austria-Hungary could not agree on what any of the specifics should be and so they could not include them. This meant that the declaration promised a monarch, without saying who, and a country, without giving its proposed borders. This of course was a very transparent attempt to coerce the Poles into the war for nothing, and they all recognized it. So instead of bringing the Poles to the German side en masse it instead alienated them even more. It would only result in the recruitment of about 3,000 total soldiers, less than 10% of what had been hoped for. The Germans and Austrians would never have held themselves to those promises anyway, as broad as they were, so this was the correct move by the Poles.

We now turn our eyes slightly further to the north and to Ober Ost. Ober Ost was made up of modern day Lithuania and Latvia and it was also a very large area, the largest of all of the areas that Germany would occupy for more than the last year of the war. What can be seen in Germany’s occupation policies of this area is how they both viewed the east, how they sought to tame it, and then how their failures would influence a later generation of Germans who would attempt to do the same thing. This area was very different than the areas occupied in the West, and even to Poland, because those were far more familiar than this area in the East. Instead what the German soldiers and officers saw a giant unclaimed, unruly, and uncultured wilderness. There was also a strongly held belief that the people in the East were unclean, and that they had to be molded and shaped into something better and only the Germans could do that by shaping them in their own image. Because of this they sought to bring everything under control. The first result of this movement was, of course, economic exploitation just like everywhere else, however it then extended far beyond that. There were pervasive movement policies that restricted any movements by the natives, there were cultural education programs, and efforts to bring them into line with what the Germans saw as correct and proper behavior. All of these programs would just increase the resistance among the Lithuanians and Latvians, making it harder and harder for the Germans to get what they wanted from the area, and also to control it. The failures of these policies would leave a legacy and the Germans, and then the Nazis, would study these failures for later use. They would learn things, sometimes the wrong things, and it would result in not less efforts to control be more, with more stringent measures to ensure control, and far more suffering. So with that very cheery intro, lets talk about how the Germans arrived in the area.

Overall about half as many German troops would fight in the East as in the West and when they advanced into Russia the scale and space of the east made it difficult for them to wrap their heads around it. In both wars first hand German accounts are filled with just amazement at the sheer size of the land, and how it felt like it went on forever. They also advanced into areas where the peoples, cultures, and customers were far more alien than in the West, it almost seemed like the people were living in the past, with little civilian administrative groups to guide and shape them. While these areas were generally far less regimented than the Germans were used to this fact was just amplified by the flight of the many local Russians when the Germans were advancing. The Tsar had sent many Russians into these areas to both administer the regions and to attempt to Russify them. However with the German advances most of these people fled, this meant that almost the entire set of administrators, school teachers, and police along with other professions were no longer present for the Germans to see. On top of these people leaving this areas was generally effected in the same ways as everywhere else in Europe when the tides of war moved through them, general destruction, dishevelment, and despair. However, since this was the first time that the Germans were really experiencing the area all they knew is what they saw and they believed that it was normal. When Ludendorff and other German leaders looked over what they saw they thought that there were items upon which they could improve and they wanted to. In their minds all they had to do was rationalize and define the societal structures, and they sought to do this by making them more German. Along with this they believed that they could educate the people and teach them a better way to live. But before they could do all of that they had to setup an occupying government.

Unlike most other occupation areas Ober Ost would be administered by the military and this was done due to the wishes of Ludendorff who thought that he and the military could do a better job than the civilians. He sustained this setup because Ober Ost ran without any subsidies from Germany proper and this meant he did not have to compromise the military’s power for support. It was also easy to prevent an influx of high level civilian control. He setup an administrative bureaucracy which would attempt to change Ober Ost through a series of programs. The first of these would be to secure the areas behind the front to make sure there were no security concerns, which was an obvious first step. Then it would move to a system of complete and total economic exploitation before then moving onto the final objective of Ober Ost which looked to the future. This would involve the complete remaking of the land into a German state. To accomplish all of these goals Ludendorff put in place an administration which would eventually contain 10,000 people. These were entirely men and visits from family were strictly prohibited. This created a sense of isolation. Most of these men would be brought into the country in the fall of 1915 however for even the most skilled and seasoned administrators, many of whom had been involved in civilian government before being brought into the army of 1914 there were real challenges. These challenges were made worse due to internal competition and friction between departments of the administration, which resulted in sometimes confusing orders and at times a complete lack of guidance from above, giving local officials much more autonomy than they could have expected. Under all of these efforts for reform were a large series of brutal and violent rules that would see oppression become the rule and not the exception.

This system of oppression was a critical part of the exploitation campaign and they used it as a basis for setting up a system of collecting taxes, state run monopolies, and state run businesses that were able to export a huge amount of money and goods. Over the course of the war this would amount to about 350 million marks worth of goods and this was split between the value of natural resources, straight up taxies, and wide spread requisitioning of goods for the war effort. At times the Germans would offer to pay for the goods that were requisitioned but even when they did this it was often paid for in paper money that the natives believed, quite rightly, was worthless. There were also random acts of requisitioning. For example if an area failed to meet the goals for grain requisitions then their horses might be taken. Later the war the confiscation of horses was a common act because of how valuable they were and the Germans would find the smallest excuse to take them. There was also just a general mass exportation of all farm livestock with Ober Ost seeking to provide a third of all of the meat needed for all of the German troops on the Eastern Front. 90,000 horses, 140,000 cattle, 767,000 pigs were all taken. This would dramatically reduce the available breeding stock early in the war, which meant in later years the Ober Ost livestock replenishment rate would be much smaller than it should have been. This is the same mistake that the Germans had made with their own livestock populations early in the war. There were also other bits of short term thinking that were problematic like in 1916 when it was decreed that all arable land must be planted during the 1916 season. Take to any farmer the world over and they will tell you that this can be problematic. In many areas this just resulted in a massive waste of seed because in many areas the yields did not even make up for what had been planted. The Germans just simply did not take the local conditions into account, and they certainly would not have listened to a local who might tell them otherwise. This failure did not prevent further interference in later years, instead they just fell back on a healthy amount of blaming the locals.

Of course the true cost to the native populations was not measured in the goods that were taken or the failures they were accused of the real cost started with control. When military rule was put in place they also brought with them an obsessive need to control the entire area. All people over 10 years of age were registered, photographed, and issued with an identity card. This would result in over 1.8 million people being registered during the war, and interesting fact it would take 12,000 pens and 177 liters of ink to catalog them.

Much like in other territories the Germans also greatly restricted the movement of the population. At first, like in other countries, this began as a defensive measure when security behind the front was of primary concern, however it would be further developed instead of removed when the front moved on. The entire area was divided into a grid and those inside each grid square could not leave it unless given special permission. There was no thought given to basing these boundaries on anything other than map coordinates with settlements, parishes, neighbors, trading partners, and families all separated. These types of separations were ignored, and the area was mapped to better allow for exploitation efforts to be planned and tracked. Not everyone was allowed to stay in their homes though. In October 1916 Ober Ost began to impress workers into labor parties that could then be moved outside of their places of residence for work. These would eventually lead to Civil Worker Battalions and in these units the life of the workers were miserable. Rations were scarce, accommodations even during the winter were completely inadequate, and while there was often pay it was just a fraction of a real livable wage. These factors resulted in a situation where these people were often worked literally to death and while such schemes were officially disbanded in 1917 that did not stop it from happening under other names and organizational schemes. Often people who were taken from their homes and into work units were forced to sign volunteer contracts just like the Belgian workers who were exported into Germany, and unfortunately in the East there was not Belgium Relief Commission to help them. The total number of workers is not completely certain however what they were forced to work on was. The most important work that they did, from the German perspective was on the rail and road networks which were not felt to be up to German standards. The railroads all had to be converted from the Russian gauge to the German gauge which took a tremendous amount of back breaking work and then there were also needs for roads to allow for transport where the rails did not go, which again took a huge amount of manual labor to create. This effort on the roads was then often just undone during the spring and fall due to the amount of rain which would turn almost any road into a bottomless pit of mud not matter how much was put on top of them to try and fill them up.

There was also an obsession with attempting to clean the people, and I mean physically. For example in Bialystok there were repeated compulsory delousing efforts where 2000 inhabitants would be deloused at a time. This was the inevitable conclusion of the belief that these people were dirty, somehow deeply unclean, and it was only the Germans that could bring them out of that state. This also meant that if the people would not fall in line they would have to be put in line, even if violence was necessary, and because of this the least infraction could get a person beaten. This also served the purpose of making sure that there was a constant reminder of the space between the German occupiers and the natives, a way of constantly, brutally, asserting that the Germans were just better than those who lived there. This reinforced the feeling both for the natives and the Germans themselves. The soldiers were led to believe that they were just trying to bring order, and so beatings could happen for anything at any time, however, as the German grip tightened more and more people slipped from their grasp. As famine gripped the cities and the occupiers resorted to heavier and heavier forms of requisitioning and brutality a growing class of bandits began to assert their power. These groups often lived in the forests that were present everywhere and at first they were small and their actions were timid with maybe a bit of light thievery. However as time went on and their numbers grew they became bolder and more daring, it got to the point where these bandit groups were attacking entire villages, often terrorizing the natives, directly attacking those who were working with the Germans, and then killing the German soldiers. This level of lawlessness would bleed into the post-war world and was especially dangerous when combined with the vacuum of power when the Germans retreated, the Russian Civil War, and then the Soviet presence.

While all of this exploitation and violence was happening in 1916 in 1917 two things changed. First, Hindenburg and Ludendorff left to take over supreme command of the German armies. Second, and more importantly, the Russian revolution happened. This, combined with the restlessness on the German home front and the growing calls for peace without annexation meant that the German government began to plan on how to work with places like Ober Ost in a future where maybe they did not directly control the region. The hope was to co-op the natives and get them to participate more actively in running the territories so that after the war they would ratify permanent German rule. This type of program may have worked early in the war and the reason for this was that the natives were not treated any better by the Russians before 1914. The only difference was that under Russian rule there was a good amount of indifference to what was happening in the areas that made up Ober Ost. The Germans did not share this indifference and instead through their restricting and constantly growing list of rules and regulations they killed any chance they had of creating a permanent pro-German government. This meant that by the time that the Germans needed them the natives felt that they were far worse off than they had been under the Russians, even though your probably would have gotten some pretty negative comments about the Russian rule before the war. It is not like the Germans learned this lesson though, that they had a chance to get the formerly Russian citizens on their side and they would make the same mistake not just in World War 2 but also in 1918 Ukraine. In Ukraine the peasants would eventually lead an open revolt against the German occupation that had began in early 1918 that would result in the assassination of the Governor General in Kiev in July. By July 1918 things were starting to fall apart for the Germans anyway, even though they had not signed a peace treaty with the new Soviet Russia. When the Spring 1918 offensives began there were a million men in the East, however by the time of the armistice this number had dropped to less than half a million as the rest had to be pulled out and sent West due to a lack of manpower. In his book War Land on the Eastern Front Culture, National Identity, and German Occupation in World War 1 Vejas Liulevicius says that “Ober Ost’s military utopia was a failure. Internally, it was wracked by incompatible ends and means. Its regime and ambitions left natives with nothing to lose and forced them into a new understanding of national identity, a conscious struggle for survival. Consequently, the German identity and mission in the East which Ober Ost promised to build was frustrated.”

For all of the people who lived in the East there would be a serious lack of closure to the war. The war would lead into national building efforts in the power vacuum of post Russian and German rule, often with wandering freelance military units like the German Friekorps making everything more difficult. This then led into nations that were just getting a good bit of bedrock underneath them when 1939 happened. For the Germans there was a sense that they had beaten the Russians and conquered the land of the east, but it had been taken away from them, and what they brought back were stories of people who could not be tamed by normal means, and that due to their backwardness they could not be properly ruled. Because of this the belief that would come to be held by many Germans, and especially a certain former Fuhrer was that of lebenspaum, or living space, however a piece of this belief was that of raum, which is German means to clean, to clear, those that lived there to make way for the superior Germans. Vejas Liulevicius again “The East appeared as an area of races and spaces, which could not be manipulated, but could only be cleared and cleaned. Failures, not only successes, have historical consequences, and Ober Ost was a failure of momentous importance for German views of the East.” In 1939 the Germans would return, once again committing the same mistakes as in the previous war, only the second time they would be far more brutal, destructive, and the results would be even more tragic.