German state-building in occupied Poland as an episode in postwar reconstruction, 1915–1918

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date



History and Philosophy

Publication Title

Decades of reconstruction: Postwar societies, state-building, and international relations from the Seven Years’ War to the Cold War


Wars create winners and losers, they magnify the differences between strong and weak, and they destroy the old rules and institutions of order. G. John Ikenberry Despite the vast literature on the First World War, Germany's three-year occupation of Poland has long been an unknown chapter of its history. This is partially due to a general neglect of the eastern front and partially to a more specific neglect – which is now being remedied – of the phenomenon of occupation during the war. The only one of Germany's wartime Polish policies that has found its way into the broader narrative of the war is its proclamation, issued jointly with Austria-Hungary on November 5, 1916, that the Central Powers intended to support the restoration of a Polish state after the war. Because this proclamation was immediately followed by an attempt to recruit Polish soldiers into the service of the Central Powers, Germany's actions in Poland, including its more conciliatory policies, such as the re-establishment of a Polish university in 1915, have long been dismissed as thin draperies meant only to cover its greedy scramble for Polish cannon fodder. In a similar vein, recent monographs on the occupation have tended to focus on its extremely harsh economic aspects. According to the view of these scholars, Germany may have instituted policies that seem intended to win the hearts and minds of the occupied population, but this was primarily a means of easing resistance to Germany's plunder of Polish resources. While some historians concede that this exploitation was a contingent response to the pressures of total war, others see more sinister forces stirring within Germany's eastern occupations. Almost always focusing on the Baltic lands rather than Poland, they tend to see these occupations as mere episodes in a lengthy narrative of latent cruelty and semi-restrained German aggression in Eastern Europe. A distinct variant of this argument, in which the history of Germany's relations with Eastern Europe are subsumed into a broader, pan-European narrative of colonialist exploitation and domination, has recently found favor among historians of Germany.

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