War, Land on the Eastern Front

Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius

Cambridge University Press 2010

The author is an academic historian of Lithuanian origin who now works in the United States.

The book deals with a neglected aspect of WWI, that is the creation by the German army of a state in the occupied East, known as Ober Ost. This is a contraction of Oberbefehlshaber Ost – supreme commander east. The author deals with both German and Lithuanian sources which often reveal diametrically opposed views of a situation. He has unearthed a lot of previously unknown material.

In essence, it was Ludendorff’s idea to create a puppet state. The aim was to create a model for German colonisation in Europe and elsewhere. As part of this, one of his suggestions was to create a wall from the Baltic to the Black Sea to keep out the “hordes from the east”. Does this sound a little familiar in the current political climate?

The area initially encompassed was modern Lithuania, parts of Latvia, Poland and Belorussia. At the time, these were all part of the Russian empire, so the German soldiers thought that they would be dealing with the “Russians” as a homogenous entity. Of course, we know that there is and was, considerable ethnic diversity in the Baltic region, in fact more so then than now, not least as the Baltic German population no longer exists. By 1918, with the collapse of Russia the eastern border of Ober Ost was extended to a line of Kursk-Pskov-Narva. If you look at a map that is a long, long way east. In 1918, the German army had to keep one million men in the east to deal with this enormous area, including to organise the harvest and transport of food supplies to the starving millions in the countries of the central powers in Europe. Transport is complicated even today by the fact that the Russian railway gauge is different to the rest of Europe, so goods have to be transhipped to other trains at the border, or the train bogies changed.

The aim of Ober Ost was to educate the locals, to make them cleaner, to remove “filth” and in effect to turn the locals into quasi-Germans. There are of course parallels with British colonisation elsewhere. The agent for all this was the German army, in effect being used as an agent for social change. German culture was to be taught in schools and newspapers were produced to help educate the masses. However, all this was done in German, not in the local languages, so success was very limited, eg the locals could not read the newspapers that were supposed to educate them. The teachers did not speak German either.

Those local men who had not been forced into the Russian army at the start of the war were now forced to work for the German army. The German system in Ober Ost was rigid and did not meet the realities of daily life, eg the practicalities of farming. Lithuanian sources indicate that the indigenous population regarded themselves, probably accurately, as being very much trodden on by the German army whilst the view in the German records is somewhat rosier.

Issues facing ordinary German soldiers include that of dealing with the scorched earth retreat of the Russian army and of comprehending that the civilian population was not an homogenous group of “Russians” but an ethnic and religious mixture.

The tale is told of three men, in one town, called Schmidt, Kowalski and Kusnjetzow – all three names meaning “smith”. In spite of having a German name, Mr Schmidt regarded himself as a nationalist Pole, Mr Kowalski as a thorough Russian in spite of his Polish name, and Mr Kusnjetzow as German, in spite of his Russian name. The Pole with the German name, Schmidt, was a Roman Catholic; the Russian with the Polish name was Orthodox; and the German with the Russian name, Mr Kusnjetzow, belonged to the evangelical church.

The ethnic situation was an awkward one for the German soldiers to deal with, as their own “national” identity was only 50 years old.   As well as a Polish local population, there were of course Poles in the German army, whom the local Poles regarded as their kin.   The Jewish population could be communicated with, however, as they spoke Yiddish which is a derivative of German. In fact, the fortunes of the Jewish population declined markedly after the collapse of Ober Ost, and they were subjected to horrendous pogroms in Poland and the Soviet Union amongst other places.

Ober Ost was lost by defeat on the Western Front, not collapse in the east. Ultimately, the experience in the east in WWI acted as a foundation for the ideas of German expansionism, especially those later put forward by Adolf Hitler. Some of those soldiers who were in Ober Ost saw this as territory which had been lost by defeat in the west, not by them, and which they had rightfully gained in the first place. This was the basis for the radicalisation of many, including those who ended up in the German paramilitary groups, for example the Freicorps, such as Rudolf Hoess who later became commandant of the Auschwitz camp in WWII.

In WWII, the German involvement in western Russia, the Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic was much less benign than was the case in WWI. The suffering of the Jewish populations in WWII is well known but the 16 million civilian Russian dead are often glossed over. Would all that have happened in WWII but for the Ober Ost experience in WWI?

Overall, this is a valuable book. It is not a conventional WWI “which battle happened where” history and is fairly lengthy. Nonetheless, it is a worthwhile addition to our knowledge of an often overlooked area of the WWI global conflict.