Saturday, May 26, 2007

BOOK: V. G. Liulevicius, "War Land on the Eastern Front"

Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius: War Land on the Eastern Front: Culture, National Identity and German Occupation in World War I. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 0521661579. viii + 310 pp.


During the First World War, Germany was quite successful on the Eastern front, and managed to occupy a considerable amount of territory that had formerly belonged to the Russian empire. Some of this territory, such as Poland, was governed by civilian occupation authorities, but some of it remained under military administration. This was known as the “Ober Ost’ and covered the area of the present-day Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and a bit of Belarus. War Land on the Eastern Front is a book about the Ober Ost, the German occupation policies there, and about how the German experiences in the Ober Ost during the WW1 affected their mental picture of the East during the Weimar and Nazi periods.

I first heard of this book in Richard Evans' Coming of the Third Reich. However, it's quite expensive; currently, the hardcover costs $75 at amazon and the paperback costs $40. So I set up a notification on eBay and waited; eventually, a copy of the hardcover in very good condition turned up for $25 and I bought it.

As the price suggests, this book is probably targeted mostly at the academic market rather than at the general public, which is another reason why I was somewhat hesitant whether I should buy and read it or not; but fortunately it turned out that most of it is actually fairly readable and accessible. There's no obvious reason why it shouldn't be of interest to the general public, except that the subject is perhaps too obscure and narrow to be of interest to many people. But I was very curious to learn more about what was going on in the areas gained by Germany in the East during the WW1 (see my posts about Wheeler-Bennett's Brest-Litovsk: The Forgotten Peace); in particular, I'm fascinated by the many parallels and similarities that exist between the German attitudes, policies, and territorial ambitions regarding the East during the WW1 and those during the WW2. One is always shocked by the immensity and horror of the Nazi plans regarding the East, but it turns out that in many ways they went just a couple of steps further than their predecessors during the WW1. Anyway, if you are also curious about this topic, this is definitely just the right book for you. I found it very interesting.

My favourite parts of this book were the first few chapters, which describe the German occupation policies in the Ober Ost during the WW1. In some of the last chapters things turn a little bit more nebulous and abstract, as they are more about the development of ideas, views, opinions (that the Germans had about the East) rather than about simple narrative history and statements of facts. I didn't enjoy this part of the book as much as the earlier chapters, but even so it was still fairly pleasant to read; and anyway, for many people, and probably for the author himself, it is probably this latter part of the book that is the most valuable and interesting. The style of these latter chapters sometimes reminded me a little of Modris Eksteins' Rites of Spring (which I read last year but haven't yet written about it here on this blog — alas, my draft about it is a hopeless, ridiculously overlong jumble, little more than a summary; I can only hope that I'll get around to sorting it out eventually): pleasant to read, almost exciting sometimes (although the style of War Land on the Eastern Front is never even remotely as excited and breathless as that of the Rites of Spring), but fairly abstract and after I've read a few pages I don't necessarily feel much wiser or have the impression that anything much of what I've just read will stick in my mind. [Interestingly, both authors are Balts — Eksteins is from Latvia, and Liulevicius I guess is probably of Lithuanian origin, given the large amount of Lithuanian sources cited in his book.]

German impressions of the East

The Baltic lands, when the German army entered them, were in a state of devastation; the Russian army observed a scorched-earth policy during its retreat. The Germans' “initial impressions were crucial, shaping the way they responded to the territory and its peoples [. . .] they took the abnormal conditions and effects of war to be characteristic of the place, part of its essential character.” (P. 30.)

It is known that the Baltic lands were some of the last parts of Europe to be converted from paganism, but it seems that the influence of paganism lasted even longer than I thought. “For all practical purposes, the [Lithuanian] countryside only truly accepted Roman Catholic Christianity in the eighteenth century. Even then, what evolved was a complex synthesis of older beliefs with new religion.” (P. 31.) See also p. 69: “farmers plow around large and small stones in their fields” rather than removing them, due to “their animistic sense that the stones [. . .] had spirits and a right to be where they were”. “Germans marveled at the prehistoric stick plows used by natives [. . .] Even local breeds of swine were closer to wild boars, it seemed, than to German varieties.” (P. 69.)

“Among its many disconcerting qualities was how much history [the ground] seemed to hold. Army engineers' spades, building fortifications, found burial sites and weapons from a dim past of Baltic–Indo-European tribalism. [. . .] The most startling element was that here the prehistoric level was so close to the surface.” (P. 37.)

The Germans were also disgusted by the filth and squalor they encountered in the occupied areas. “To officials' disgusted amazement, cleaning of one particularly filthy urban thoroughfare struck proper cobbled pavement underneath, buried for decades under trash and dirt. Natives were as surprised as the soldiers. In another case, cleaning exposed a human skeleton — it was unclear how or when it had ended up there.” (P. 44.) “In one archetypal moment, Germans claimed that in Wilna, retreating Russians had ‘dirtied and stunk up [the place] un the most unspeakable way. On the ground floor of City Hall, horse manure lay three-quarters of a meter high. On the upper floor, which horses could not reach, their riders took over the animal act. [. . .]’ ” (P. 154.) The Germans promptly forced sixty native women to spend the next two weeks cleaning the place up, and henceforth never ceased pointing to it as an example of how Germans are more civilized than the Russians (p. 160).

Before the war, most Germans knew little about the Russian empire and thought of it as a rather homogeneous, monolithic entity, but “now it dissolved into a chaotic, ragged patchwork of nationalities and cultures” (p. 22).

‘Elective ethnicity’

Among the many things that confused, and to some extent appalled, the German occupiers in the Ober Ost was the complicated nature of national identities there. A number of nationalities were present in that area, all hopelessly mixed with one another, and national identity wasn't correlated too well either with language or with religion; and many people were unsure of their identity anyway. “[E]thnicity seemed very much determined by choice. ‘Elective ethnicity’ ruled. [. . .] Newly arrived Germans, trying to discern order in the land, found this disconcerting. [. . .] ‘[. . .] There are “Lithuanians” who speak no word of Lithuanian, and vice versa there are committed “Poles,” in a religious or other tradition, who speak only Lithuanian. Often members of one family count themselvers to different nationalities. [. . .]’ ” (P. 34.)

This is illustrated by a splendid anecdote of the ‘three Smiths’ in a town in Lithuania: “Mr. Schmidt [. . .] professes himself an incarnate nationalist Pole, Mr. Kowalski as a thorough Russian and [. . .] Mr. Kusnjetzow as a genuine German.” (P. 34.) “This confusion bothered soldiers because their own national identity was a recent construct [. . .] It was disconcerting for them to see how much ethnicity depended on historical circumstance and (to them this seemed most obscene) on personal choice and commitment.” (P. 35.) “[L]anguage (so important a determinant to German concepts of national identity) did not completely define ethnicity, either” (p. 121).

See also p. 185 for more interesting discussion about the concept of nationhood among the Baltic peoples. The author explains this using the etymology of the Lithuanian word for a nation, tauta: “ ‘Nation’ locates identity in birth (‘natio’). Tauta, however, is different, originally meaning ‘troop,’ ‘crowd,’ or ‘a band of riders’ (Indo-European ‘teuta’). The unifying principle, here, in contrast to ‘nation,’ is from the outset voluntaristic, pointing to a common, shared project defining the group.” In other words, this was a concept of “ ‘elective ethnicity,’ nationality as a conscious choice” (p. 186); the “Ober Ost saw not merely the clash of German and native nationalisms, but [. . .] the collision of markedly different kinds of nationalisms” (p. 186).

German occupation policies

The German administration in the Ober Ost strictly excluded non-Germans from positions of influence: “Besides being exclusively military, it was also to be exclusively German. [. . .] the ‘Order of Rule’ decreed that official titles of all offices bore the prefix ‘German.’ [. . .] A general precept written into the ‘Order of Rule’ stated that no native could command or be set above any German. Natives could only be drawn in to work as helpers, and then received no pay for their services, could not refuse service or resign from assigned responsibilities.” (P. 58.)

I was really rather shocked by this paragraph — it seems that the only difference between their policies and those of the Nazis during the WW2 was that extermination and genocides were not on the menu in the WW1. Otherwise, we see here the concept of the Germans as a master race, strictly above and separated from the natives, with the natives being little more than slaves. It isn't surprising that the author consistently uses the word ‘natives’, which we otherwise usually encounter when talking about European colonies in Africa or some other such downtrodden part of the world.

“If the army took from the land what it needed, claiming everything as its property, the same lordly treatment was applied to natives. In the streets, natives were required to make way for German officials, saluting and bowing. Violence became increasingly routine, with reported public beatings. There were numerous complaints of German soldiers raping and mistreating native girls and women, while men trying to defend them were beaten and threatened with death. Brutality towards natives went unchecked from above, due to the imperative of presenting a unified front.” (P. 63.)

Again I am quite shocked by all this, but I must admit that one thing that I find even more disconcerting is that much the same things were going on at the same time throughout the European colonies in Africa and Asia, and *I was never shocked by that*. Of course this sort of treatment of the natives in the colonies is atrocious and unacceptable, but I never found it shocking — it always seemed somehow obvious and unsurprising that such things would be going on in the colonies. But here, when I read about such things having been practiced by the Germans in the Baltic lands, I found it shocking. And this is the disconcerting thing here. Being more shocked when the people being oppressed happen to share one's skin color than when they don't is perhaps natural, but it is hardly commendable.

“The administration became a curious mix of ambitious competence and even more ambitious incompetence.” (P. 58.)

The administrative confusion and the oppression of the natives even reached such levels that, “most intolerable to [the Ober Ost] officials, the distant Reichstag could be heard, periodically demanding civil administration (in both senses of the term) for the occupied territories” :-) (p. 64).

One of the big goals of the Ober Ost administration was to make the territory autarchic: it “would be run from its own resources, while providing for armies in the East, placing no demands on the Fatherland” (p. 64). This led to various policies intended to maximize the economic exploitation of the area: introduction of various new taxes; the state claimed a monopoly on the trade with cigarettes and certain other items; there were requisitions and confiscations of all sorts of things, livestock, and real estate; “[e]ach harvest was confiscated entire and had to be sold to the army at prices which it fixed itself” (pp. 65–6); farmers were also required to provide certain amounts of various other agricultural products (chickens, milk, etc.), and these requirements did not necessarily take into account how little their farms were actually able to produce (p. 66). The transport system (old roads, old carts) was unable to cope with the increased strain (p. 67). To prevent their horses from being requisitioned, farmers tried all sorts of desperate measures; eventually, the invisible hand stepped in: “tired, bad horses commanded higher prices than good ones, as they were less likely to be requisitioned” (p. 68). Many people were recruited to work on roads and construction projects, often in very bad conditions and with little or even no pay; “According to the ‘Order of Rule,’ natives had no right to refuse assigned duties” (p. 73). “When their workday ended at 4 p.m., natives were driven back to unheated barracks and locked in for the night, without warmth or light.” (P. 74.) The difference between this and the treatment of forced labourers in Nazi Germany seems smaller than I would have expected.

Another typically colonial phenomenon: legal discrimination. “Courts were independent of German legal norms at home. Russian law was administered ‘in German fashion,’ in German language which natives could not understand. [. ,. .] Ober Ost law was applicable only to natives, while Germans were to be judged by German law. [. . .] Punishments were brutal, with crippling fines for slight infractions and death sentences for a native's possession of a weapon.” (P. 76.)

The administration's efforts towards total control of the area resulted in a flood of orders and regulations. Of course all these were originally written in German, which few of the natives understood. When they provided translations into other languages, these were often spectacularly bad (another problem was that these other languages often lacked some of the more specialized legal and administrative terms). “[B]ecause of an orthographic mistake, one legendary announcement read in Lithuanian, instead of ‘The German court judged,’ ‘The German excrement shitted’ [. . .] The problem was finally ‘solved’ by fiat: when laws appeared in German, they went into effect regardless of whether they were understood. Thus, the problem was ‘happily resolved. It was specifically determined, that for all orders and regulations, the German language sufficed.’ ” (Pp. 77–8.)

The area of the Ober Ost was divided into administrative units of various levels, and crossing the borders of these units was difficult: “internal borders [were] guarded by police and stationed troops. Natives were not allowed to move over the official boundaries. [. . .] Natives sometimes could not cross boundaries to visit neighbors, relatives, even parish churches. Traveling Jewish merchants lost their livelihood entirely. Huge fines, crippling penalties, and confiscations were imposed by military courts or district captains for infractions of these borders. [. . .] In a typical peasant response, natives drew back into themselves and their households, frustrating German expectations of revitalized economic activity.” (P. 93.)

The German administration had a veritable obsession with something called ‘movement policy’ (Verkehrspolitik), i.e. with the aim of controlling all movement of both people and goods within the Ober Ost; see also p. 101: “ ‘[. . .] every person, in whatever place and for whatever purpose they might find themselves in the occupied territory, must be in possession of some identifying certification [. . .]’ ”; thus, personal identification documents were issued to all inhabitants over the age of ten (p. 101). Frequent inspections of these documents were carried out for no better reason than to get the people used to this and to the need for carrying the documents (p. 104).

Regulations were even “instructing natives precisely how to walk on the sidewalks”: all natives “ ‘[. . .] must politely greet the German officers of the German army [. . . and] must give the right of way in the street to German soldiers and if need be should step down from the boardwalk. Resistance will be sharply punished.’ ” (P. 104.) Compare this with the decree issued in 1941 by a Nazi administrator in occupied Poland: “I decree that Poles of both sexes must salute all military vehicles and vehicles bearing pennants. This decree is necessary for two reasons: (1) Because the Poles have become cheeky and presumptuous, (2) Because the reputation and standing of the German reich” requires it (cited in Burleigh's The Third Reich: A New History, ch. 6, sec. 3, p. 451).

At some point, the administration “carried out a ‘people and livestock count’ [. . .] the description speaks volumes about the occupiers' perspective” (p. 94).

The results of these policies are unsurprising: “The popular mood turned against the Germans, where before it had been tentative, expecting normalization and the return of order. [. . .] Ordinary peasants who had cared nothing for politics now were forced into political understanding in ethnic terms.” (P. 75.) See also p. 181: “Paradoxically, the administration inadvertently created objective conditions for the formation of independent native identities and political consciousness. [. . .] The clash of cultures with the occupiers compelled natives to articulate values earlier inchoate and implicit in their traditions and ways of life, as an alternative to intolerable present conditions.”

Of course, the German authorities also controlled the press. Most of the newspapers were in German, which few of the natives understood: “The only concession made to this reality was to print German text in Latin type rather than Gothic” (p. 116). “All press underwent double censorship, before and after being typeset, in a regime given to ridiculous excesses of caution” (p. 119).

Another tightly regulated area was education. “These programs' ultimate aim was to produce client nationalities within a German framework [. . .] distinct blocs of ethnic groups, accustomed to German manner and method, but requiring German supervision.” (P. 127.) The goal was not germanization; “Instead, authorities aimed at gaining a foothold in each pupil's consciousness through language lessons and inculcating German manner, a German way of doing things, and German method” (ibid.). Higher education was very limited, as natives would “have no need for an intelligentsia” in the envisioned future of the area (ibid.). The state didn't really accomplish much in the field of education, besides “shutting down schools and stoping out grassroots educational efforts” (p. 128); “natives fell back on a tradition of a clandestine schooling” (p. 127).

Here's another example of the ridiculously ham-fisted way in which the German authorities tried to promote the superior German culture among the poor benighted natives: theatre. “Reportedly, locals were crowded into these military temples of art, after being forced to pay to see dramas in a language they did not understand.” (Pp. 140–1.)

[To be continued in a few days.]

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Author Liulevicius is indeed Lithuanian, a distant relative of mine.

Monday, September 03, 2012 2:30:00 AM  

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