Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
22 Feb. 2016
Review by Michael S. Neiberg, US Army War College
Elusive Alliance: The German Occupation of Poland in World War I
By Jesse Kauffman
Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2015. Pp. 287. ISBN 978–0–674–28601–6.
Descriptors: Volume 2016, 20th Century, World War I, World War II Print Version

Distinguished historian Bernard Bailyn has recently written a masterful study of the differences between teleological and contextual history.[1] The former presumes an inevitable or likely end state. On this view, the American Revolution, for example, becomes merely one stage in the United States' rise to global power or its realization of full political equality. Contextual history, by contrast, posits no such end state and accommodates a wide variety of possible outcomes. It recognizes that actors at any given time do not have a later historian's awareness of the longer-term course of events. The teleological theory is so tempting because we cannot erase from our consciousness the events that subsequently flowed from past actions. The challenge is to avoid letting those events determine too exclusively how we write about the past.

In this regard, the First World War presents a particularly acute problem. Those who see it as merely a prelude to the Second World War often ignore that the generations alive in 1914–18 did not know what we now know. By positioning the First World War as the start of the time stream leading to the Second, we neglect, in Bailyn's terms, the contextual significance of events in their own time. Too often teleological writers overinterpret evidence from one era because they can only see it through the lens of another.

Thanks to some marvelous scholarly work, the German war on the Eastern Front in 1914–18 is no longer, as Winston Churchill called it, an "unknown war." But we still struggle to give it meaning on its own terms. Our knowledge of Nazi genocide, the Cold War, and the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe makes it hard not to see the events of the First World War in a larger context of the twentieth century as a whole. Scholars have sometimes cast the war as a manifestation of the German notion of Sonderweg (special way) that makes the genocide of 1939–45 a bit more explicable. A purely teleological explanation draws a direct line from German war crimes in the Great War to the death camps of the Third Reich and perhaps beyond to the years of Soviet dominance in Eastern Europe.

In Elusive Alliance, Jesse Kauffman (Eastern Michigan Univ.) rejects any such reductive analysis. Adopting Bailyn's contextual method, he sees a variety of possible outcomes in the German occupation of Poland from 1914 to 1918. Rather than portraying it as a dress rehearsal for the Second World War, he elucidates German occupation policy in Poland as a function of the exigencies of total war in the East, domestic politics inside Germany, and, crucially, the actions of the Poles themselves. While these overlapping contexts may share critical elements with those of 1939–45, they were nevertheless distinctive. In other words, the Kaiser's Second Reich fought a kind of war in a not yet independent Poland that necessarily differed from the one Adolf Hitler's Third Reich waged against both the Soviet Union and an independent Poland. The key to comprehending the first, therefore, is to forget the second ever happened, or, perhaps better put, to remember that no one in 1914–18 knew what was to come a generation on. For Kauffman, the German occupiers of Poland in the First World War were not harbingers of their counterparts in the Second; they instead represent a fading nineteenth-century view of Europe, in which Poland played a key role in stabilizing or destabilizing central and eastern Europe.

Kauffman argues most convincingly that the Germans' confused quest for a viable policy for Poland in the First World War lacked clear goals and so ended in failure. Rather than murdering the Poles and destroying their institutions, as they tried to do in the Second World War, the Germans had hoped to create an independent nation (its borders shifted eastward at the expense of Russia) with close cultural, economic, and military ties to Germany. In doing so, they could cast themselves as modernizers and liberalizers in contrast to the autocratic and brutal Russians they were replacing. To achieve this, Kauffman maintains, they had to find a balance between coercing the Poles and gaining their consent for German designs. They never succeeded, mostly because the Poles recognized that Germany, not Poland, would benefit from German reforms.

Like Isabel Hull,[2] Kauffman does not see Germany in the First World War era as an outlier among European states. Instead, he contends that its plans for Poland differed little from Britain's plans for Ireland, France's for Corsica and North Africa, or even the Americans' for Mexico. Similarly, the Allies' wartime policy in the liberated portions of the Ottoman Empire reflected a desire to ensure both political stability and easy access to raw materials, while at the same time respecting local customs. In so doing, they wished to project enough political legitimacy to dampen overt resistance and even allow them to recruit soldiers from occupied regions. At least until 1918, Kauffman demonstrates, the Germans behaved essentially like other occupying states. Only later, when memories of the occupation of Poland and the Treaty of Versailles's creation of a new Polish state embittered Germans in the postwar years, did a far more horrifying and brutal—but not inevitable—model present itself.

The most critical context of the occupation was, of course, the total war Germany was fighting on multiple fronts during the First World War. Like all warring states, Germany sought to win first and remake the areas it occupied later. Effective occupation policy was vital to achieving victory. This put the occupiers in a difficult position, given the diverse religions, cultures, and languages within Poland. Policies that helped to win the war (like the confiscation of food to minimize the effects of the British blockade at home) undermined Germany's goal of establishing good relations with a reborn Poland after the war. This dilemma proved insoluble—a lesson for all occupying powers, including recently the United States.

Kauffman astutely returns the Poles themselves to the center of their own story. Like the Balkans, Poland, too, has more history than it can consume. In 1914, it was home to competing polities and a diverse population. It was more an idea than a nation with distinct borders or a common history. Various groups strove to control both the country's historical narrative and the future direction of any Polish state. This struggle allowed the Poles to play the Germans off against the Austro-Hungarian Empire, at least until its collapse.

The author organizes his narrative around the figure of Gen. Hans Hartwig von Beseler, who came to Poland after making his name as the victor of Antwerp (Oct. 1914). The general became the principal German policymaker in Poland following the great Russian retreat after the Gorlice-Tarnów offensive in spring 1915. Finding himself immersed in both German and Polish domestic politics, he envisioned a reliably pro-German postwar Polish state that Poles themselves could regard as legitimate. As Kauffman observes, Beseler's plans differed sharply from the genocidal tactics of Hitler's Reich a generation later. Beseler wanted to work with all but the most anti-German Poles, including the Jews, most of whom initially saw the Germans as liberators from the pogroms and repressions of tsarist Russia. Kauffman notes that many of the professors whom Beseler helped to develop the new pro-German Warsaw University later died in Nazi death camps, a poignant index of the differences between the two occupations.

Beseler's travails will sound familiar to observers of present-day occupations. Unversed in the history and culture of the people he would soon rule, Beseler struggled to understand the Poles and the fissures in Polish society. Rejecting the biological racism of many Europeans, he tended to see the Poles as children, unsophisticated and incapable of self-government, yet (he presumed) eager to learn from and emulate the more advanced political system of their occupiers. He also had to deal with representatives of the German civil government, who often had their own goals for Poland. Moreover, other great powers, friend and foe alike, tried to influence the nature of the German occupation. In the end, as Kauffman clearly shows, it was all too much to hold together.

The contexts and results of the Second World War were far different. By 1939, German leaders had conceived a white-hot hatred of Poland, a state created in 1919 by the victorious Allies partly from German territory. The leaders of the deeply racist Third Reich meant to empty Poland in order to maintain the standard of living, and thereby the morale, of the German home front, an intention consistent with their explanation of Germany's defeat in 1918. Poland was then to be resettled by Germans in accordance with the Nazi quest for Lebensraum. These differences in historical context, not some deeper Drang noch Osten (drive toward the east) or unusually virulent racism, best explain the dissimilarities of the two occupations.

Students of twentieth-century European history or occupations generally should read Elusive Alliance and carefully consider its core arguments. Jesse Kauffman has made a most compelling case that Nazi occupation policies were not continuing but reacting against those of the Kaiserreich. Policymakers, too, should reflect on the relevance of the German occupation of Poland to a general theory of occupation. However good their intentions and their resources, occupying powers will always face daunting challenges.[3] As Robespierre is said to have remarked, no one loves armed missionaries.[4]

[1] Sometimes an Art: Nine Essays on History (NY: Knopf, 2015) 18–52.

[2] Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany (Ithaca: Cornell U Pr, 2004), reviewed by Robert Nelson, MiWSR 2007.05.01.

[3] See, e.g., David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One (NY: Oxford U Pr, 2009).

[4] Personne n'aime les missionnaires armés.

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