Prelude to Lebensraum? Germany’s Occupation of Eastern Europe in WWI

Was the German conquest of Eastern Europe in WWI a prelude to Hitler’s racial Armageddon? Not when you look at the facts.

On 3 March 1918, the German Empire reached the height of its power. With the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, Germany now controlled the Baltic countries, Poland, Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula. Combined with its domination of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Germany now had direct or indirect control over almost all of Central, Eastern and Southern Europe. The Second Reich needed only defeat the Western powers or fight them to a draw to establish itself as the greatest continental power since Napoleon.

It didn’t look that way in the beginning of the war. Indeed, for a few weeks in August 1914 it looked like Russia might conquer Germany, not the other way around. But a series of miraculous German victories at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes reversed that tide and drove it back. Beginning with the 1915 Gorlice-Tarnow offensive, the German army progressively conquered more and more Russian imperial territory until reaching its apogee in the aforementioned treaty of Brest-Litovsk, a treaty so humiliating for Russia that it took all of Lenin’s powers of persuasion to get the Bolsheviks to consent to it.

The borders of Eastern Europe after Brest-Litovsk. Photo: Wikimedia
An enormous new empire. The borders of Eastern Europe after Brest-Litovsk. Photo: Wikimedia


A disorienting experience

While the German conquests certainly looked impressive on a map, for the average German soldier and commander it was a disorienting and often bewildering experience. Few Germans had ever crossed the eastern border; most of what they knew about the Russian empire often came from books or political propaganda about the monolithic and barbaric Russian hordes – a stereotype reinforced during their invasion of East Prussia.

The reality turned out to be very different. Soldiers found a land with a huge variety of peoples, races and creeds. Jews, Poles and Ukrainians lived with Baltic peoples, Tatars and others. Many claimed to be Lithuanian without speaking Lithuanian or Polish without speaking Polish. This was not just one alien people they conquered, but a whole mix of peoples with strange and seemingly exotic ways of life with few of the clear-cut boundaries so familiar among Western nations.

The people in the occupied areas repelled as much as they fascinated. Soldiers came face to face with a relatively underdeveloped region (relative to Germany, that is), ravaged by war, displacement and physical destruction, with a population now reduced to poverty and ridden with disease.  The sheer dirtiness, greyness and disorder many saw often filled them with disgust.

Even more bewildering was the sheer size of the land – it seemed to go on forever. What made this sense of size even greater was its relative emptiness; millions of inhabitants had fled or were expelled to the Russia interior, making an already sparsely populated area seem like one big black hole, ready to swallow up anyone who enters.

Regular soldiers – and a very large number of German soldiers served in the East at one point or another – reacted in a variety of ways. Many were homesick, and some tried to deal with their being away from home by retaining the German culture and custom they remembered from back home. Some soldiers abused their superiority and beat natives up, others actually “went native” either partially or completely. The black hole had indeed swallowed them up.

Erich Ludendorff, victor of Tannenberg and architect of German policy in Ober-Ost. Photo: Wikimedia
Erich Ludendorff, victor of Tannenberg and architect of German policy in Ober-Ost. Photo: Wikimedia


Occupation, Order and Requisition

Where soldiers saw chaos and uncertainty, German military leaders saw a golden opportunity: here was the chance to develop German methods and German culture in its purest form. Poland had a puppet civilian regime by 1916, but the remaining territories were ruled by a military fiefdom known as Ober-Ost. Here, ambitious generals such as Erich Ludendorff could build a utopia of German Kultur, free of any interference from the civilian authorities back home.

Since at least the 19th century, German intellectuals and writers had cultivated a myth of the East which emphasized the role of Medieval German merchants and crusading knights in bringing prosperity to the more backward Slav tribes. It was the German vision of American Manifest Destiny – bringing order and civilization to an unruly and undeveloped frontier.

The Germans were as good as their word: they built roads and laid down rail and telegraph lines. They published newspapers in native languages, established native museums and even sent theater reviewers to learn as much as possible of native cultures. They also engaged in extensive health programs to try and extirpate disease. The administrators envisaged a sort of benevolent apolitical regime run by the army in which the natives could grow and become civilized.

Three things got in the way of this utopia. The first was the war. To make up for the losses of the British blockade, the Germans requisitioned huge amounts of food, fodder and resources from the inhabitants, much as they did in places like Romania. A sardonic Jewish joke summed it up nicely: “the Germans had indeed brought order to Poland. Whereas before there was corn . . . now there is order; whereas before there were oxen . . . now there is order.”

Peasants and cities were quickly reduced to destitution, and in some cases outright death from hunger. Worse, the requisitions made it harder to farm what they had. “German work” in many cases meant forced labor for little or no pay and poor food; delousing and disinfecting was done by force rather than persuasion.

Second, German order quickly became massive disorder. Local and regional offices issued so many overlapping and increasingly restrictive orders that Ober-Ost was the very caricature of the bureaucratic state. Not only did they increasingly make anything resembling normal life impossible for the native population; very quickly the orders were issued only in German, so that most didn’t even know what they were doing was illegal.

Natives could be arrested or have their property confiscated for many reasons. They were prohibited from instructing in their own language. It got to the point that there were so many laws that the laws themselves became meaningless. Unintentionally, the Germans forced many formerly apolitical peasants and natives to resist the occupation by banditry, partisan warfare and nationalist activity rather than bear it any longer. As one common native expression went: “The Russian knout hurt once in a while – the flat of the Prussian broadsword hurts all the time.”

The third problem, related to the above, was that the Germans had no intention of letting native voices be heard or represented in the leadership of this new utopia. At first, the German military leaders in Ober-Ost supported outright annexation of the new territories, including encouraging German settlement in the new areas. Some annexationists even mulled expelling all or part of the native population in some areas to make way for German settlement, a Teuton bastion defending against the Slavic hordes.

By the time of the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, however, they had long since opted for indirect domination through Baltic German leaders, who were often even more chauvinistic towards the natives than Germans from the Reich. Under such conditions, many natives felt no choice but to strive for outright independence – something they would have never realistically dreamed of before the war.  In their own inept way, the Germans had helped to encourage the kind of nationalism and self-determination the Western Allies were now calling for.

He spoke the language of WWI imperialism - but he meant something very different. Adolf Hitler. Photo: Wikimedia
He spoke the language of WWI imperialism – but he meant something very different. Adolf Hitler. Photo: Wikimedia


A Direct Line to WWII?

All the German dreams of Empire came crashing down after the Armistice and the Versailles treaty, which forced the Germans not only to admit defeat in the West but give up all the lands they had won in the East. Yet the myth of the East, worked by the German knights and now sanctified by the blood of German soldiers, continued to obsess many a German teacher or writer long before Adolf Hitler came to power. When the future Fuhrer spoke of the necessity and desirability of German expansion into the East, he was speaking in terms that would ring familiar to any German nationalist both before and after the Great War.

Yet there were critical differences between the WWI imperial enterprise and Hitler’s maniacal Armageddon. For all that late 19th century nationalistic Germans spoke of “racial” clashes between Teutons and Slavs, when it came to match words to policy, they thought, spoke and acted in terms of cultural differences, not biological ones. The uncultured could be educated, their dirt cleaned up, their diseases cured and inoculated. No matter how backward, the natives were still seen as human. It was an attitude of classical 19th century imperialism, albeit with a particularly German flavor and made harsher by the deprivations of war.

Hitler, by contrast, turned the entire vision on its head: the diseased natives became the disease itself, their lack of culture evidence not of lack of education or cultivation but simply from not really being human. For Hitler and the Nazis, the peoples of Eastern Europe were either beasts of burden or viruses, to be appropriately worked to death or ‘disinfected’. Any pretense of a ‘civilizing mission’ was dropped in favor of an apocalyptic and messianic frenzy of mass murder every bit as insane as Joseph Stalin’s desire to improve the lot of the peasantry by starving them to death.

The story of the German occupation of Eastern Europe is an excellent example of why we must always be careful never to ‘read history backwards’ and always judge people on their own terms and according to their own understanding. It is also a clear demonstration of just how much the world changed after WWI, to the point that terms and ideas that meant one thing before and during the war meant something entirely different in the years that followed.


Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, War Land on the Eastern Front: Culture, National Identity, and German Occupation in World War I, Cambridge University Press 2005.

Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, The German Myth of the East: 1800 to the Present, Oxford University Press 2011.

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