The German Occupation of Poland in World War I
Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2015, 320 pages
Book Review published on: March 24, 2017
If geography is not destiny, it certainly has a powerful role to play. Just ask the Poles. Much of the tragedy of Polish history comes from having a homeland between the aggressive Germans to the west and the Russian to the east. The Poles would be reminded of this in the second year of World War I when the Kaiser’s troops drove the Tsar’s armies out of Poland, prompting the inhabitants to wonder if their liberators brought some form of independence or a new form of oppression.
In his book, Elusive Alliance, author Jesse Kauffman shows that the Germans had high hopes for their new conquest. In the short term, they hoped to feed their war effort with resources and manpower from the region. In the long term, they saw the potential for a Polish satellite serving as a buffer against future Russian threats. The German efforts to bind Poland to an expanded German Empire were epitomized in the person of their military governor, Gen. Hans von Beseler. Beseler took a sort of paternalistic view of the Poles, seeing them as a somewhat childish people who needed German mentoring before they could rule themselves. However, his efforts to build good will with the Poles foundered on a variety of competing forces. One obvious problem was the rapacious demands the German war effort made on Polish labor and resources. Another was Hohenzollern’s unhappy record of dealing with its own Polish minority. Finally, and most importantly, there was the enduring and unquenchable Polish desire for independence.
With the ascendance of Hindenburg and Ludendorff in August 1916, the Germans increased their efforts to earn Polish support, yet German efforts to recruit the Polish volunteers to fight their former Russian masters was a conspicuous failure. It was a failure that highlighted the unwillingness of the Poles to submit to the German vision of total war and satellite status. This setback led, in turn, to German concessions that included local self-government, a Polish-run school system, and a Polish Regency Council. All to naught. In October and November 1918, when the German Empire followed the Russian Empire into collapse, the German occupation of Poland collapsed with it. Beseler fled the country and mutinous German soldiers surrendered their weapons to the jubilant Poles.
Kauffman judges that that the German vision for Poland’s future had little chance of realization; however, the author resists the inclination of other scholars to link Germany’s heavy-handed occupation polices of World War I with the murderous reign of terror the Nazis imposed on the region twenty years later. Instead he concludes, “Germany’s project in Poland is best seen as an experimental way station between the ultimate disappearance of imperial sovereignty and the triumph of the sovereign nation-state.” In his book, Kauffman gives us the necessary context to find this conclusion persuasive. Thus, Elusive Alliance is recommended as an insightful and convincing analysis of a heretofore little studied aspect of the First World War.
Book Review written by: Scott Stephenson, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas