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  • The Impossible Border: Germany and the East, 1914–1922 by Annemarie H. Sammartino
  • Clifton Ganyard
The Impossible Border: Germany and the East, 1914–1922. By Annemarie H. Sammartino. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2010. 248 pp. $39.95 (cloth).

The Impossible Border is a fascinating study of Germany’s eastern border during and immediately after the First World War. Annemarie H. Sammartino contributes significantly to our understanding of the role immigration and emigration played in German politics and culture. Perhaps most interesting is Sammartino’s examination of the border not only as a geographic location but also as a symbol and as a mental construct. Sammartino argues that the delineation of the eastern state border, the dream of its extension during the war, its severe reduction after the war, and the crossing of that border created a crisis of sovereignty for Germany and the Germans. Since nation, state, and territory were so closely linked to one another, the rapid changes the eastern German border underwent and the migrations of various peoples across that border raised questions about national identity: Who exactly belonged to the nation and the state? Who was German, after all? And what authority did Germany have?

In asking these questions, Sammartino challenges the thesis posed by Hannah Arendt in in her classic study The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1973). Arendt argued that states’ failure to protect stateless people—the increasing number of migrants moving across borders after the First World War—led to “the danger of a gradual transformation into a police state” (p. 288). The increase in international migrations and the rising population of “stateless peoples” within a state’s borders, in other words, was a fundamental step on the path toward totalitarianism. However, Sammartino notes that although contemporaries such as Carl Severing, the Social Democratic Prussian minister of the interior in 1922, were clearly concerned with the influx of foreigners in Germany, they did not necessarily view them as a threat. Severing resisted viewing the immigration of eastern Jews into Germany as a racial problem and called on Germany to provide asylum and support for these immigrants, whether they were ethnic Germans or eastern Jews. Sammartino thus questions Arendt’s conclusion that migration and statelessness inevitably led to fascism. At the same time she notes that these migrations did force Germans to reevaluate their inherited assumptions about territory and their own identity.

In examining the implications of Arendt’s thesis, Sammartino explores eight topics: citizenship during the First World War, the Freikorps Baltic Campaign, Ansiedlung Ost (the creation of a socialist [End Page 1016] colony in Russia), the immigration of ethnic Germans from Poland, efforts by the German government to control migration across the eastern border, Russian POWs, German naturalization policy, and Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe. Some of these topics, such as the Freikorps and Jewish immigration, have been studied in depth previously, while others, such as a tolerant policy toward Jewish immigrants, have been noted by scholars and then dismissed as insignificant. However, Sammartino demonstrates that these seemingly disparate topics—ranging from citizenship policies to paramilitary campaigns to colonization efforts to POWs—are linked together through the symbol of the border. In doing so, she provides a convincing argument for the significance of each of the individual topics and their relevance for understanding German conceptions of the nation. Furthermore, in juxtaposing several of these developments, she presents interesting and significant parallels between these different episodes. For example, in the Freikorps campaign in the Baltic, she notes a strong desire among the soldiers to escape from a politically and socially restrictive atmosphere in the Weimar Republic. This by itself is nothing particularly new, but in her next chapter on Ansiedlung Ost, she notes a similar desire among workers and socialists to escape from Germany. While neither of these politically opposed (nationalist and socialist) groups possessed a clear image of what the East should be, both viewed the border as an opportunity to find a new life. For both groups, crossing the eastern border offered freedom and the opportunity to pursue their utopian visions of the future. At the same time, however, the border became less meaningful in terms...


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