Fragmentation in East-Central Europe: Poland and the Baltics, 1915-1929
By Klaus Richter
Reviewed by Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Throughout history, empires have been the norm in international relations, while nation- states a rarity. Small and even medium nation-states exist at the whim of the imperial powers that be either as their temporary satellites or subordinates of an international order or both. Therefore, the drive for integration is the most permanent and predictable fact of international affairs.
Yet, as excited or unhappy as small actors may be in their subaltern roles, they often react to overweening imperial appetites by countering it with self-assertion of sovereignty. The powerful see that as “fragmentation,” “particularism,” “nationalism,” and other signs of making trouble in the world dominated by empires. It is also annoying from the point of view of the imperial players’ economic efficiency, who prefer to deal with likewise huge economic units rather than fragmented, small areas. Large economic units are much more viable than small ones. Still, they tend to disregard the interests of smaller units, riding roughshod over them to pursue profits and efficiency. Let us keep this in mind as we delve into yet another study of the Intermarium.
In his superbly researched and persuasively argued Fragmentation in East-Central Europe: Poland and the Baltics, 1915-1929 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), Klaus Richter analyzes the phenomenon of the interaction between national sovereignty and fragmentation during the First World War and its aftermath. “The book will tell the story of the consequences and responses to this fragmentation both thematically and chronologically.” (p. 8) The historian penetrated seventeen archives and referred to at least 83 different newspaper titles multiple times, making his monograph also a commendable exercise in Zeitungsgeschichte. He is fluent with secondary sources, both old and current, and, as far as I can tell, hardly missed anything of historiographical importance with, perhaps, the seminal study of Western (lack of) investments in Poland by Leopold Wellisz, Foreign Capital in Poland (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1938) (a disclosure: the latter author is our family). In addition to German, English, and French, Richter is at least serviceable in Polish and Baltic languages, which is a feat in itself. His methodology is logocentric and empirical, which is quite refreshing in post-modernist academia. Each point he illustrates with a multitude of individual examples.
The scholar is interested in continuities and discontinuities at economic, social, political, and diplomatic levels in Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The pivot of his story is the Great War. One reason is that “The First World War transformed the East-Central European demographic structure like no previous historical event.” (p. 107) But there were others as well.
Richter argues that the newly independent successor states merely followed the logic of events, trends, and institutions that they had inherited from their former imperial hegemons. After they were rejected as inviable by the international system as reflected in the League of Nations, the East-Central European successor states turned sharply toward étatisme and even autarchy. The state everywhere became the organizing principle. Small nations made themselves viable by using the state to organize and reorder their jurisdictions within.
Although liberalism had been the dominant ideology, in particular in the economic realm from the second half of the 19th century, it gradually was undermined by statism, in particular as far as defense sectors were concerned. The trend for state intervention and centralization increased exponentially, of course, with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. The virtual collapse of the liberal economic system yielded to an outright autarchy as the combating powers vied for supremacy and, in the process, denied usual markets to the enemy. Klaus Richter calls it “state socialism” and names Walther Rathenau, Germany’s war-time economic dictator, as its creator. (p. 207)
After the fall of the Romanov, Hohenzollern, and Habsburg realms, the successor states acquired their war-time systems and arrangements. They set themselves up on the foundations of statism. “However, beyond repatriation, policies empowering the titular nationalities yielded limited results. It was rather the states themselves that succeeded in taking control of much of the economic agency lost by others in the process of fragmentation…. Thus, the states became the most important economic actors in the region, while the private sector, hoping for a return to a liberal pre-war order, was sidelined. With its emphasis on centralism and territorial engineering, Polish statism provided an ideological and scientific foundation of policies that harnessed fragmentation.” (p. 311)
Arguably, Germany’s occupation had made the most indelible mark on the nascent nations. By mid-1915, Berlin conquered from St. Petersburg the lands that had belonged once to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, partitioned by the powers at the end of the 18th century. In particular, the conquest comprised of central Polish lands, sans the Lublin area ruled over by Vienna, and a chunk of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, including ethnic Samogitian and Lettish lands as well as about half of White Ruthenia up to Pinsk. Thus, the German occupier established two distinct administrative units under its aegis: the Kingdom of Poland in the west and the Ober Ost in the east.
After the punitive treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Bolshevik Russia in March 1918, the Second Reich extended its jurisdiction in the east of the Intermarium to the rest of the old Grand Duchy, past Minsk. In the north-east its power stretched virtually to the outskirts of St. Petersburg, which entailed dominating the rest of the home of the Letts and the country of the Ests. Additionally, in the south-east, again in the condominium with Austro-Hungary, Germany occupied Ukrainian lands. Thus, it extended its dominion not only to the Black Sea but also into the Caucasus. Ukraine was turned into a puppet state under the German diktat. The freshly captured north-eastern areas were subordinated to the Ober Ost.
Everywhere the Germans instituted a military government. Its ideal was an autarchy. They centralized and instituted far ranging controls over all aspects of economic, social, and political life. Its ambition was to control everything and everyone. The German military authorities significantly constrained free population movements and seriously curtailed free trade, forcing traditional merchants and salesmen, most of them Jewish, to resort to smuggling and price gouging. “German economic policies thus aggravated local antisemitism in a sustained way, as Jews were increasingly linked to speculation and war-time profiteering. This marginalization of Jewish merchants, an aim that Lithuanian nationalism shared with other East-Central European nationalisms, did not go unnoticed.” (p. 113)
In the Ober Ost, much of the centralizing animus was aimed at the Poles, particularly the landed nobility as the leading Intermarium elite representing the past glories of the old partitioned Commonwealth and providing leadership for the local people. Their estates were either confiscated or subject to enormous taxation. The nobility were also forbidden from trading on the free market. Instead, the Germans ordered them (as, indeed, everyone else) to surrender the fruits of their labor, forced food quota in particular, to the occupation authorities. These constraints brought the historical Polish engines of the largely agricultural and sylvan economy to a grinding halt.
At the same time, the Germans encouraged minority folk nationalisms, in particular Lithuanian and White Ruthenian ones. The occupiers, however, favored the minorities only to the extent that Lithuanian and Ruthenian institutions, cooperatives in particular, could facilitate a more efficient exploitation of the economy and labor in the Intermarium as well as maintain their anti-Polish attitude. (p. 211)
In the Estonian and Latvian lands, the Germans initially supported the Baltic barons, who owned most of the land. Later, to maintain some influence in the post-war period, they switched to backing Germanophilic native leaders. Some of these were outright servile; others opportunistic, eager to use Berlin as a steppingstone to independence as soon as the opportunity presented itself.
Throughout the war and occupation, the Second Reich, aside from a few empty declarations, consistently avoided empowering their captive subjects and allowing them to form their own governments. Berlin did allow for collaborationist bodies. In the Kingdom of Poland, they did play important self-government and institution-building roles, but in the Ober Ost, they were almost wholly rubber stamp puppets of the occupiers. Nonetheless, it was partly from these German-sponsored institutions that free Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania would eventually emerge after their multi-cornered wars for independence.
In any event, all this German effort became moot following the collapse of Central Powers in November 1918. The Hohenzollern empire and its system were no more. “The construction of the Brest-Litovsk order as an anti-Polish order intensified the antagonism of Polish nationalists and their counterparts in the eastern ‘borderlands’ (especially Lithuania and Ukraine). Elevated to a political level through German-sponsored state-building, the conflict between Poles and their eastern neighbors expanded from a socio-economic conflict to a political conflict between states. After the German defeat, the conflict continued, reflecting in battles for international recognition of statehood and boundaries. These battles were fought not only against a skeptical Western Entente, but at last, as much among the new states themselves, as they faced and exploited allegations of Bolshevism, antisemitism, or of functioning as little more than a tool for continued German geopolitical scheming.” (p. 57)
Although the control of these lands would be terminated after the Kaiser lost the war, the occupation system left in place endured well beyond. “The German occupation established structures – for better or worse – the new states adapted.” (p. 309)
At this point of Richter’s narrative (or at least in his conclusion) one wishes in vain to compare the creation of the Baltic states and the reemergence of Poland with the decolonialization processes in Africa and India. For instance, it could put into a broader relief the continuation of partition and occupation time laws in the lands of the old Commonwealth. (p. 294) However, Richter does admit that to manage the Białowieża Forest the Germans called in their experts with colonial experience, namely in forest exploitation in Cameroon. (p. 158)
Meanwhile, folk nationalist parliamentary republics appeared in the Baltics that earned the peoples’ support largely by turning on the traditional elites and foreigners. In Latvia and Estonia, that meant expropriating the German barons, foreign investors, and manufacturers. In Lithuania the main target of the Samogitian folk nationalists was the Polish nobility. They were expelled “under pogrom-like conditions” (p. 84) in the process that Richter refers to (jointly with similar actions in the other Baltic states) as “ethnic cleansing.” (p. 255) Those undertakings were “the most transformative policies enacted in interwar East-Central Europe.” (p. 301) They also should be seen as endeavors to integrate the successor states within, just as they became fragmented without. Thus, the historian shows that the so-called “land reforms” served as an integrative nation-state building tool. In this manner, the Baltic successor states plied not only national liberation but also social revolution.
In distinction, a point largely missing from Richter’s monograph, instead of waging a national socialist revolution, the Poles struggled to restore their old Commonwealth. This included reestablishing its external and internal frontiers. Failing to grasp it, the historian chafes that “Polish bureaucrats delineated the state’s administrative units in a way so as to deliberately obfuscate former [partitioning] borders.” (p. 138) It is indispensable to bring back the old patterns and paradigms to shake-off dependency rather than maintain a foreign diktat’s legacy. That should be obvious. In at least one place the author understands such realities, however: “The future Polish state would thus continue the work of Antoni Tyzenhaus, the Lithuanian Grand Duchy’s last treasurer, who had established the first factories around Vilnius and Grodno.” (p. 163)
Richter also fails to appreciate that the driving force was not ethno-nationalism but cultural nationalism grounded in history. For example, he keeps misapplying the term “ethnic Poles” to the Polish landed nobility in the Ober Ost. (p. 257) But they were gente Ruthenus or gente Lithuanus natione Polonus. Treating them as “ethno-nationalist” Poles is completely anachronistic. Thus, the historian is mistaken when he writes about “ethnicization” (p. 61) in regards to the Polish perception of the Kresy [Eng.: the Borderlands]. It is plain wrong to posit that the Poles “imagined” the Kresy to be ethnically Polish. Instead, they believed them to be Polish in a cultural and historical sense. And by “Polish” they meant the old Rzeczpospolita.
Richter does stumble upon such evidence of pre-modern Polish self-identification but has problems interpreting it quite properly. Instead, the best he can do is to argue that “People’s clear belonging to the new states’ body of citizens was increasingly seen to reflect in the decisiveness with which they opted for a state’s citizenship. Citizenship was seen as tied to national self-identification and could thus be neither conditional nor tied to economic considerations.” (p. 100) That is correct. Polishness was chiefly a conscious cultural choice, and neither solely an ethnic nor an opportunistic one. The word “obywatelstwo” (citizenship) denoted one’s descent from the “Polish” nobility who enjoyed rights, unlike the commoners. In the early 20th century, those rights accrued to anyone who consciously fought for the restoration of the Commonwealth, and, hence, an independent Poland.
In reality, the Polish elites were multi-ethnic but also uni-cultural: Polish and, hence, Western and, usually, Latin Christian. The most common denominator among the common Polish common folk was, firstly, the Catholic religion and, only secondly, the ethnic origin. The latter factor of Polishness dominated at the grass roots level chiefly in the Kingdom of Poland and western Galicia, but not in the Grand Duchy. There, Polishness was largely a cultural choice and reflected an individual’s historical legacy and a preference for the West over “the East,” aka Russia. The author largely misses such subtleties. He is also rather confused about the Grand Duchy mentality, particular the conservative krajowcy option, and the ethno-nationalist Lithuanian (Samogitian) orientation. (p. 45) He falsely treats them interchangeably. However, the former is cultural and inclusive, the latter ethno-nationalist and exclusive.
Thus, with respect to the role of ethno-nationalism, comparing the Baltics to Poland is a game of apples and oranges. The resurrected Polish Republic was not an ethno-nationalist state. It was a somewhat diminished old Commonwealth with the Polish (Western) cultural element dominant. Ethnic minorities comprised overall 30% of the population, but in the east they constituted a clear majority. Each harbored irredentist, or at least centrifugal and folk nationalist tendencies, which gravely impacted Poland’s poor image in the West. “Poland and the Baltic states had attempted to shake off their solidifying international images as chauvinistic and particularistic. Yet the entrenching narrative of ethno-centrism brought about by the internationalization of the refugee and minorities questions proved as disastrous for them as the League’s failure to act on minority questions proved for the national minorities… In this climate, German revisionist arguments that the new states were bound to fail as a consequence of their political immaturity gained appeal among an international audience… Even if non-organized, violent expulsions largely subsided with the consolidation of independent statehood in 1920, the narrative of minorities under threat had only started to gain traction.” (p. 105)
Also, because Poland and others, sans serious foreign capital, were slow to rebuild their economic potential, Western charges of inefficiency and autarchy abounded. In reality, however, in all-new countries, there emerged a state-private partnership in the economy. National minorities, who had held commercial sway over those lands and peoples before 1914, continued to be viable players. However, “titular nationalities” made some inroads into their bailiwicks in the interwar period. The common people tended nonetheless to stay away from trade and commerce, in particular, as well as the cities, in general. “It took the Second World War and Soviet coercion to move peasants into destroyed cities and take up urban professions in significant numbers. However, the most significant factor in enabling the titular nations to take control of trade was the Holocaust, which wiped out the many obstacles on the route to commercial empowerment… The economic marginalization of the national minorities thus did not reflect a social strengthening of the titular nations. Rather, it went hand in hand with a staggering degree of state involvement in commercial matters.” (p. 202)
Since foreign capital sneered at emerging opportunities with disdain in the interwar period, much of the private effort tended to be native: Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, and Polish capitalists, including Jews in the last-mentioned group. Their efforts varied, but some of them succeeded eminently, in particular these with government connections. In some cases, there was well-founded fear that foreign capital could breed foreign dependency, an unacceptable price for the newly freed nations. “Ultimately, such anxieties arose from fears that Germany’s Mitteleuropa project was far from dead yet – rather, its structure was stripped down to a purely economic form.” (p. 173)
Further, which Richter notices readily, the Second Republic was a rather large state. “Perhaps surprisingly, the Second Polish Republic also faced allegations of ‘small statehood,’ even though its interwar territory encompassed almost 390,000 square kilometers and thus as much as interwar Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and all the Baltic states combined, and only 20 per cent less than the Weimar Republic. The ‘smallness’ of states thus did not derive from territorial size alone. Rather, it was a metaphor for the disruptive, fragmenting effects of their borders, for sprawling bureaucracies, and alleged particularistic pettiness. The new states did not disrupt Europe’s economy because they were ‘small states’ – rather, they were deemed ‘small’ because they were seen as obstacles to the continent’s recovery.” (p. 147)
Accordingly, German propaganda conflated Poland with the Baltics and reduced them to Saisonstaaten. The crux of the charge against them was economic. They were not viable because of their bloated bureaucracies, irrational borders, statist economics, and failure to revive trade and manufacturing to pre-1914 levels. “The allegation of Polish ‘statism’ enshrined a whole set of negative notions ranging from a ‘state of thieves’ to an ‘illegitimate state.’ ‘Statism’ became a vital keyword in the rhetoric of German territorial revisionism as well as of British and American liberal circles. Polish economic propaganda abroad struggled with an increasingly entrenched stereotype of Poland as Europe’s most protectionist state. Poland’s protectionist policies, it countered, were neither indicators for socialism nor authoritarianism, but represented a vital tool to overcome the fragmentation caused by the Partitions, which had turned historical Poland into ‘three different economic organisms’…. It is striking that the intensity of the free market rhetoric of the interwar Polish state increased in parallel with interventionist practice.” (p. 216)
At the same time, the West countered its perceived fatal flaws in the successor states’ economic structureby advocating free economic zones. “In the early 1920s, calls for the creation of extraterritorial units to facilitate transit trade in an age of fragmentation had become louder. Due to their simple logic, turning coastal cities into free ports increasingly seemed the most promising solution for the disruption of global trade links and for the problems of landlocked riparian states faced.” (p. 238) Therein laid the logic behind denying Gdańsk (Danzig) to Poland, which led to a zero-sum game vis-à-vis Gdynia. (p. 224) Incidentally, the case of the access to the sea of Poland, Lithuania (Memel), and other Baltic states demonstrates plainly the loss of utility of the slogan of national self-determination and anti-Bolshevism in favor of the paramountcy of economic considerations among the Western powers.
It is no wonder that the idea of the newly established successor states’ utter uselessness enjoyed wide currency among Western intellectuals and opinionmakers. “International representations of territorial fragmentation directly contributed to a pessimistic view on the future prospects of the new, territorially smaller, and economically truncated states, and thus of Europe in general. The challenges of economic reconstruction, which seemed unsurmountable against the background of territorial disintegration, led to an unequivocal consensus across the Western Entente and Germany that none of the political formations that emerged from the ruins would be able to survive on their own. As former imperial provinces or regions, they constituted parts of an allegedly coherent economic and political organism now torn apart. On their own, heads and limbs were bound to wither and die.” (p. 141)
This was the case, in particular, in the Anglo-Saxon world, which pined for the good old days of the Russian empire and its inexhaustible markets predicated on free trade. “In the interwar years, politicians from East-Central Europe frequently found the legitimacy of their state’s existence challenged purely because of their inability to mitigate the consequences of the loss of the Russian market for the economic recovery of Europe.” (p. 202) This was tantamount to blaming a dentist for your own car problems. In other words, fueled by German revanchist propaganda by the liberal Weimar Republic, English and American governments, bankers, and capitalists blamed Poland for the fact that Communist Russia prevented the restoration of salubrious economic relations in that part of the world.
Unfortunately, Richter fails to elaborate on the Kremlin’s role in this process. After the Polish victory of 1920, the Soviet factor is almost entirely missing from Fragmentation in East Central Europe: Poland and the Baltics, 1915-1929. Instead, the scholar focuses mainly on Germany. “The real threat to the new states arose neither from the national minorities, nor from the League of Nations, but rather from German political support for territorial revisionism.” (p. 297) It is true, as far as it goes. But Berlin could not have succeeded without Moscow, as history shows. This includes not only, ultimately, the Hitler-Stalin Pact of August 1939, but also, in the meantime, promoting a malicious image of Poland through use and abuse of propaganda.
According to the historian, the successor states “were seen as economic disasters that had repercussions far beyond East-Central Europe. International images of Poland and the Baltic states as ‘small states,’ as particularistic and immature, stemmed from the failure to mitigate these economic disruptions as well as from representations of the experience of border crossing itself. This contributed to a political and geographical imaginary of East-Central Europe as a region that was fragmented, bureaucratized, and dominated by an irrational ethnic nationalism.” (p. 155)
And further, “Both views, although idiosyncratic, were highly representative concerning their core assumption: that the independent existence of ‘small states’ in East-Central Europe [Intermarium] was a transitory phenomenon and that the historical trajectory, temporarily skewed by the war, continued to point towards territorial integration. In a region such as East- Central Europe [Intermarium], which, geographers claimed, lacked natural borders, the imposition of ‘artificial borders’ meant a historical regression to be measured in centuries rather than decades. Most likely, the trajectory of integration would be corrected once Germany and Russia regained their power. The German concept of the region as ‘seasonal states’ (Saisonstaaten) was widely shared in the Anglo-Saxon world. Thus, most foreign policy experts initially advocated the ‘natural course’ of the restoration of Russia comprising the Baltics. Until then, independent Baltic states were but ‘temporary phases’ that lacked ‘elements of finality.’” (p. 150)
As a result of such perceptions, new states’ birth pangs were chalked up to their allegedly inherent pathologies, thus reinforcing the hostile propaganda narrative. An international consensus emerged, paving the way for future German and Soviet aggression, that small units were not viable. Therefore, they must be reordered by larger entities. “Although it has received much less attention, such normative views concerning the survivability of ‘small states’ had an equally disastrous impact on the other ‘border states’ that emerged from the peripheries of the disintegrating empires.” (p. 142) All that translated into a self-fulfilling prophecy that came to pass during the Second World War and its aftermath.
Nonetheless, in the interwar period, despite the hostility of Weimar Germany and Soviet Russia, and the sneering irritation of the Anglo-Saxon powers, the successor states learned how to cope under most inopportune circumstances. “The effect of territorial fragmentation reverberated into the 1920s. Reconstructing them allows for a view on East-Central Europe as a previously highly interconnected region. The severance of these connections prompted a reconfiguration that diminished many economic centers and created new ones at unprecedented speed.” (p. 250)
Arguably the greatest tragedy was that the Intermarium states failed to unite to face the common enemies: “From the view of the German and the Bolshevik governments, a unification of the breakaway states in whatever form would have been nothing short of a disaster. German politicians feared that if the Little Entente, founded by Czechoslovakia, Rumania, and Yugoslavia in 1921, were to integrate Poland and the Baltic states, it could form a closely integrated anti-German bloc stretching from the Adriatic to the Baltic Sea. As a consequence, they observed abounding divisions between the new states with blatant glee…. East-Central Europe became known as the archetype of a particularistic region unwilling and unable to unite.” (pp. 152-153)
There are interesting analogies that Richter brings up. For example, he points out similarities of 1918 to the post-1989 period. After the First World War, “the message was clear: East-Central Europe had to be reintegrated into its larger neighboring states – not only for the sake of the latter, but for the sake of a prosperous and powerful Europe based on principles of law and national progress. Importantly, this was a view that many Europeans shared on all sides of the political spectrum.” (p. 312) Translation: Poland and the Baltic states had no right to exist as sovereign nations. The historian finds this useful to interpret the post-Cold War order. Like in 1918, the world questioned whether, as nation-states, newly liberated countries of the Intermarium were feasible: hence, the push to join the European Union.
In addition to the points brought up above, there are a few other problems with the historian’s arguments, but no one is perfect. For example, it is high time to abandon the concept of the “Corridor,” which is a successful German propaganda moniker for Polish Pomerania. A corridor one walked or traveled through. Pomerania is an actual place where people, mostly Polish, have lived for centuries. Also, repeating stories of alleged Polish “pogroms,” in Pinsk in particular, without proper research is conduct unbecoming of a logocentric and empiricist scholar. But that is a topic for a separate treatment.
All in all, Klaus Richter has given us a solid political, social, and economic history of a part of the Intermarium on micro and macro scales between 1915 and 1929. We hope there will be more to come of monographs like his.
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Washington, DC, 10 March 2021