- Elusive Alliance: The German Occupation of Poland in World War I by Jesse Kauffman
In a 1917 letter to his wife, Hans von Beseler, Governor General of German-occupied Poland during WWI, confessed, ‘‘I would. . . prefer it if there were Germans living here. . . but there are Poles here, and you can’t chase them all away or kill them all, so you’ve got to find a way to live with them somehow’’ (227). This statement encapsulates an essential point of Kauffman’s engaging and well-researched book, arising from his Stanford dissertation. While scholars have often interpreted such comments as revealing German colonial fantasies, foreshadowing Nazi genocidal policies, Kauffman instead concentrates his analysis on the last part of the statement, drawing a clear distinction between the German occupation regimes of World War I and World War II. Beseler, at the heart of Kauffman’s story, sought to lay the foundations of a Polish nation-state during the occupation — albeit one subordinated to German diplomatic, military, [End Page 373] and economic interests — but a Polish state nonetheless. Whereas German policy in WWII aimed to wipe out any trace of Polish statehood, crush its army, and eradicate its educated elites, the occupation regime under Beseler endeavoured instead to establish a Polish administration, a Polish army, and a Polish education system that would produce the professionals and officials necessary to exercise Polish sovereignty (within limits defined by the Germans, of course). The failure of Beseler’s project, Kauffman suggests, contributed to the brutality of the Nazis’ occupation just two decades later.
Rather than establishing a colonial protectorate that would pave the way for a German settlement colony, Beseler aimed to win Polish sympathies and lay the foundations for a subordinate state, which Kauffman documents in chapters on the nascent Polish army, bureaucracy, school system, and university. While it has often been dismissed as a cynical ploy to recruit cannon fodder for the German war effort, Beseler’s efforts to create a Polish army were based on other long-term goals. Beseler himself privately expressed skepticism about the usefulness of Polish units in the current war, and aimed instead to build an army that would be subordinate to German command in wartime and would help shield Germany against Russia in the next. It would also serve as a core institution of the nascent Polish state. Parallel with the development of a Polish military, occupation authorities built a Polish administrative apparatus, including elected representative bodies in both town and country. While this served German short-term interests by drawing Polish professionals into public service and alleviating demands on thinly-stretched German occupation administrators, at the same time Beseler intended these organs to train the coming generation of Polish bureaucrats and statesmen. Likewise, the German authorities permitted schools, along with a revived University of Warsaw, to teach not only technical skills, but also a moderately nationalist Polish curriculum — celebrating the glories of Polish language, literature, and history — after decades of Russification policies. In each of these areas — army, administration, primary, secondary, and higher education — Polish demands forced Beseler to make ever greater concessions, concessions he made to maintain not only wartime order, but also to win Polish hearts and minds for the long haul.
Several factors undermined Beseler’s intentions. Germany’s long-running struggle against its domestic Polish nationalists had given it a bad reputation in Russian Poland that was difficult to overcome; heavy German requisitions of food and raw materials further alienated the population. Moreover, German efforts to develop representational politics in the occupied territories in this period of profound transition unleashed a wave of bitter resentment not only against the occupation, but also against Polish Jews. At the same time, German nationalists and conservatives [End Page 374] sought to block Beseler’s initiatives, complaining his concessions only emboldened Polish resistance. Combined with the constant wrangling between Germany and Austria-Hungary, this hampered Beseler’s ability to act decisively in creating a new Polish state.
As a result, when the Central Powers’ war...