Saturday, June 02, 2007

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

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.

[Continued from last week.]

Comparison of the Eastern and Western front experience

There's an interesting discussion of difference in the soldiers' front experience between the west and the east front: in the West you have “men and machines battling in devastated trench landscapes. By contrast, the experience on the Eastern Front was quite different, its hallmarks the fight against invisible enemies of boredom and alienation, losing oneself in the landscape, going native. [. . .] a struggle for community and identity in vast expanses.” (P. 135.)

“A frontier thesis of the German East would be radically different from that of America's pioneer West. Instead of myths of individual independence and self-sufficiency, producing democratic views, the collective goal here was ordering, cleaning, and control.” (P. 162.)

Goals of the Ober Ost administration

Verkehrspolitik's ultimate end was permanent possession of these lands through some form of settlement.” (P. 94.) Various societies and lobbying groups existed in Germany, calling for the annexation of these occupied areas in the East (some argued that such predominantly agricultural areas were needed in order to “ ‘balance’ gains of industrial areas in Belgium and northern France”, p. 95; see also p. 165). Ludendorff's assistant von Gayl wrote that “depopulated areas of the territory would be filled in with a ‘human wall’ of new German settlers, securing it for all time” (p. 95). “Settlers could not be bourgeois Germans, but rather soldiers turned into farmers on the model of medieval ‘fighting farmers’ (Wehrbauer), holding the land with ‘sword and plow.’ ” (P. 96.) Again I'm impressed by how similar these plans sound to those of the Nazis in the WW2 (see e.g. Burleigh, p. 447). [Incidentally, now I tried googling the phrase ‘sword and plough’, and the very first hit points out that they are “both traditional metaphors for the penis”. Uncle Sigmund would be delighted... :-))]

“From the start, nationalist and imperialist pressure groups formulated increasingly ambitious territorial wish lists. [. . .] As hopes for quick victory [in the first years of the war] dimmed, war aims demands perversely grew larger” (the claim was that the difficulty of winning the war shows that Germany needs more territory there so as to be able to win more easily in any future war); p. 164. As mentioned above, demands for territory in the east were also supported by claims that “industrial gains [of territories in Belgium and northern France] needed to be ‘balanced’ by expansion into agricultural territories in the East.” (P. 165.) Annexationist views were especially popular among the middle and upper classes, “for whom expansion and world power” promised to “preserve the status quo, while a compromise peace threatened revolutionary turmoil” and a revolt of the workers disappointed that nothing came of all the sacrifices they had made (p. 165).

“The most portentous outcome of Ober Ost was a far-ranging transformation of outlook, growing out of the eastern front-experience, marked by struggle with nature, filth, boredom, and inner dislocation in the difficult work of ruling the occupied territory. [. . .] The imperialist mindscape surveyed dirty lands and peoples, and saw itself imposing a new ordering through German Work” (pp. 171–2.) “[A]nnexationist propaganda, ‘War Geography’ and ‘Geopolitics’, and military schooling of the mind created a new and aggressive geographic consciousness.” (P. 172.) This affected the German attitudes towards the East in the interwar period and during the WW2. The Ober Ost “collapsed just when triumph seemed secured. This disappointment blinded many to this military state's contradictory nature. Instead, the occupiers drew from this failure lessons about the East.” (P. 219.) Similarly to the ‘stab in the back’ legend on the Western front, “a parallel legend arose, with the East as the treacherous party contaminating Germany” (p. 219). The German public felt that “Germany had in fact won the war in the East. Only later did incomprehensible events rob Germany of its eastern conquests. [. . .] As Golo Mann points out, ‘Brest-Litovsk has been called the forgotten peace, but the Germans have not forgotten it. [. . .]’ ” (Pp. 248–9.) But “one central lesson was learned from failed plans for structuring, framing, and ordering the East: instead of planning for cultural development of lands [. . .] the East was to be viewed more objectively and coldly, in terms of Raum, ‘space.’ ” (P. 252.)

The end of the Ober Ost

The beginning of the end of the Ober Ost came in 1917, when the “growing discontent in Germany expressed in the stirrings of parliamentarism and strikes, meant that the outright annexationism [. . .] needed to be replaced with more subtle, indirect forms of domination over a belt of buffer states at Germany's east.” (Pp. 177–8.) By then, the Ober Ost regime lost all its credibility with the natives; one of the last nails in the coffin was when it stopped trying to maintain order and protect the peasants from various robber bands operating in the countryside (p. 181). “The breaking point came when natives felt that German occupation was even worse than Russian rule.” (P. 181.) There was also increasing discontent among the German soldiers: “Orders against fraternization [with the natives] lapsed in the face of everyday reality. [. . .] Some, increasingly influenced by socialist ideas, [. . .] resented having to preserve the [Baltic] Barons' social dominants. [. . .] many could not see that Balten were ‘German to the core’ and thus had a right to support. As class lines reasserted themselves, the solidarity of a common ethnic German identity was breached.” (Pp. 187–8.)

Thus, the Germans tried to get various more or less representative assemblies in the Baltic countries to declare independence from Russia and also to agree to turn themselves into German satellites (see e.g. pp. 203–4). Some of them were intended to be in a personal union with Germany (i.e. they would get someone from the house of Hohenzollern to be their sovereign); p. 202. For Germany, they would primarily serve as buffer zones, as a first line of defense against Russia or Poland; they would have to let Germans station their troops there, Germany would control their transportation and communications, they would be economically connected to Germany “by common currency, standards, and a customs union” (p. 203). Being “ ‘considerably below Germany economically and culturally, [. . .] they needed firm, authoritarian leadership’ ” [von Gayl's words] for one lifetime; this would be provided by a German “governor who was also supreme commander of German occupation troops” (p. 203).

It didn't all go quite as people like Ludendorff and von Gayl planned. For example, the Lithuanian assembly, the Taryba, invited a Duke of Urach to become King Mindaugas II (named in honour of Mindaugas, the first king of Lithuania, who lived in the 13th century); but they set out conditions: “the state was to be a democratic constitutional monarchy, with a Lithuanian government, and the king and his family had to become Lithuanians, speaking the language at court. [. . .] the children were to be educated in Lithuania, becoming Lithuanian. Gentle, democratically minded Urach accepted, and spent the summer [of 1918] learning Lithuanian. [. . .] These insubordinate moves raised an uproar in Germany's press” (p. 210). The Lithuanians withdrew their invitation to Urach a few months later, when the war was over.

After the war was over, revolutionary uprisings broke out in Germany and in reaction to them, volunteer paramilitary units were sometimes formed, called the Freikorps, consisting partly of conservatively-minded war veterans and partly of “German students and other adolescents too young to have served in the army during the war” (p. 227). Some of these units also fought in the area of the former Ober Ost, ostensibly for such reasons as to help prevent these areas from falling under the control of the Bolsheviks, either the Russians or homegrown ones (pp. 228–30); in practice they often turned out to be “adventurers” and “freebooters” (p. 228) loyal to nobody except their immediate commanders (“little Wallensteins”, p. 230). They joined the adventure either out of disappointment over the confusion in post-WW1 Germany, or lured by promises of land grants (p. 230); they “arrived hoping to find an identity here [but] were thrown into confusion and madness instead, as the mission in the East turned into a rampage [. . .] They returned to Germany brutalized, scared by a failure they could not accept or explain, and filled with intense hate for the East which had transformed them” (p. 228). (Unsurprisingly, many later went on to notable roles in the Nazi regime; see the list in the Wikipedia page).

The Freikorps units in the Baltic “surrendered to pathological anger and lust for annihilation”, e.g. they “staged massive acts of arson, turning parks and orchards into enormous bonfires for recreation, pouring gasoline on trees and setting them alight” (p. 242).


The famous battle of Tannenberg in 1914 was so named by Ludendorff for propaganda reasons (this was a big German victory, so it seemed good to make it seem like a revenge for their big defeat in the other Battle of Tannenberg, in 1410); p. 15.

There's an interesting paragraph about the medieval Baltic Crusades, waged by the Teutonic knights against Lithuania (which was still pagan at the time). “In a brutal version of the ‘Grand Tour,’ crusaders from the West came to fight, including Chaucer's Knight. The Order of the Teutonic Knights' ‘Lithuanian Way Reports,’ essentially Baedeker guides for pillage and rapine, allowed crusaders to raid with accuracy from south and north.” But this pressure “backfired, actually forging anarchic Lithuanian tribes into a state.” (P. 36.)

In the 19th and early 20th century there were many debates about where the borders of Germany are (or should be); but “[t]he crowning horror to these questions was that Germans' word for border, Grenze, was not even German, but borrowed from Slavic, graniza.” (P. 166.) Frankly, I don't think this is quite so horrible as this passage makes it seem to be, and if any Germans lost much sleep over this it serves them right for making such a fuss over such an irrelevant bit of etymology. But anyway, it's interesting that they borrowed such a basic word as that. At any rate, I'm always glad to see that it wasn't always us borrowing their words — that sometimes they also borrowed words from us :)

Sven Hedin's book To the East! is a result of his visit to the Ober Ost (p. 117).

There are a few mentions of Gustav Noske, a German politician on the “right wing of the socialists” (from his Wikipedia page, which you should also visit for the sake of a priceless picture of Noske and Ebert in bathing costume :-))) noted for his suppression of the leftist revolutionary uprisings in Germany in 1919. I chiefly remember him because he is mentioned in David Clay Large's Where Ghosts Walked, who says that one slightly unhinged member of the short-lived Bavarian revolutionary regime wrote that “the hairy gorilla hands of Gustav Noske [. . .] are dripping in blood”. Now I see that this is quite appropriate (as an added bonus, he was a master butcher by trade, according to the Wikipedia); in his position as the minister of defense, he authorized the formation of the Freikorps units: “This fratricidal duty earned Noske his nickname — ‘Bloodhound.’ ” (P. 227.) “When a Lithuanian socialist appealed to SPD leaders to speak out against the army's abuses, for love of shared socialist ideals, Noske reportedly answered: ‘We are socialists only up to Eydtkuhnen’ on the East Prussian border.”

As is known, the Baltic States became independent after the WW1 but were occupied by the Soviet Union in 1939; “native peoples at first congratulated themselves bitterly on at least having fallen to the Russians, not to the Germans. Remembering Ober Ost's regime, people contrasted Russian rule, brutal but unsystematic, with the comprehensive, efficient severity of German occupation. The following year of intensifying Stalinist terror and deportations, turned this cold comfort into a crueler joke.” (P. 266.)

An interesting observation on the new field of ‘geopolitics’: “Whereas geographers traditionally sought objective renderings of conditions on the ground, geopoliticans' maps, full of dynamic arrows, stark contrasts of blocks of color, and simplified symbols, were programs.” (P. 255.) “Geopolitical thinking took on enormous significance as a mode of thinking, providing concepts which became current in popular thought”, but that doesn't mean that the geopoliticians themselves were directly influential: “After providing crucial concepts, geopoliticians had little influence on policy built with those concepts.” (P. 264.)

Interestingly, the author consistently uses German names of the towns in the Ober Ost (e.g. Wilna, Kowno).

I feel compelled to record for posterity a truly disgusting instance of hyphenation: on p. 163, “Burgfrieden” has been split over two lines with “Bur-” in one line and “gfrieden” in the next line. Yuck.

There are also some typos, perhaps more than you'd expect in a book with a RRP of $75. There's “refered” on p. 185; and von Gayl “burned the original plans to present their capture” (p. 202).


This is a pleasant, interesting, readable book. Highly recommended if you want something to remind you that the WW1 was not just about the trenches of Flanders :-)


  • Arnold Zweig: The Case of Sergeant Grischa. A “great realistic novel” of Ober Ost, “culminating in an indictment of the entire system of military rule” (p. 76).

  • Victor Jungfer: The Face of the Occupied Territory. A “novel of life in the rear areas” (no, you sick fucks, NO!!!). Mentioned here on p. 156. However, it doesn't seem to have been translated into English. The original title is Das Gesicht der Etappe.

  • Celia Applegate: A nation of provincials: the German idea of Heimat. Mentioned here on p. 174 (note 68).

Labels: , ,


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Found this while searching on Prof Liulevicius - enjoyed your writeup, though I don't imagine I'll read the book. I'm enjoying his Teaching Company course on WWI.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010 1:52:00 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home