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Book Reviews Recommended

Elusive Alliance: The German Occupation of Poland in World War I

by Jesse Kauffman

Reviewed by Marek J. Chodakiewicz

During the First World War, the Poles failed to take advantage of German offers for an alliance because Berlin really failed to offer them much.  The result was a permanent clinch between the occupiers and the occupied. As Jesse Kauffman puts it in his thoughtful Elusive Alliance: The German Occupation of Poland in World War I (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), “Whatever concessions the Germans made, they were unlikely to dispel the suspicion, mistrust, and generalized hostility to the Germans that existed in occupied Poland. On the other hand, what was perceived in Poland as half-hearted duplicity was seen in Germany as the very essence of reckless Polonophilia. So long as the war lasted, it could not have been otherwise” (p. 89).

Elusive Alliance is to a large extent a study of Polish nationalism. “Throughout this book, I use ‘nationalism’ in a much broader sense than is common in Polish scholarship, where the term denotes exclusivist chauvinism and racism. Nationalism, for the purposes of this study, simply means a desire to reestablish a distinctly Polish cultural and political entity in central Europe, whether as a sovereign nation-state, a kingdom, an autonomous unit within an empire, or in some other variant. While perhaps vague, the term is nonetheless necessary in order to avoid generalizations like ‘the Poles’, since many Polish peasants were loyal to their emperors and uninterested in grand political projects” (p. 243 n. 46). One only wishes that the historian stuck more consistently to his own strictures, as we shall demonstrate below.

Kauffman’s monograph is based mostly on German primary sources. This is its main limitation. In essence, we receive a German, and, sometimes, Jewish point of view, rather than an all-inclusive, panoramic presentation of the Second Reich’s occupation on the Russian Empire’s western fringes, and in particular the Kingdom of Poland (Kongresówka), or, as the new German parlance had it, “the Government-General.” What took place on the Vistula between 1915 and 1918 “was, above all, an attempt to secure Germany’s position in a violently chaotic and dangerously unstable international society, full of threats both ancient (foreign invasion) and modern (the intersection of nationalism with international tensions)” (p. 221).  The author calls it “Germany’s state-building plan in Poland” (p. 221).

Kauffman is at his best when discussing German intellectual schemes and political machinations. The author’s discussion of geopolitics, in particular, the perception by the Berlin geo strategists of the Intermarium lands between the Baltic and Black Seas, as a “shatterzone” is crucial and “unique” for the “Polish question” (p. 19). At any rate, the Germans did not become serious about finding a solution for Poland until the summer of 1918 (p. 202).  Ultimately, however, Warsaw gained its freedom without, and even against, Berlin.  That eventually led some Germans to refer to their war-time Polish policies as “self-inflicted disaster” (p.  215).

Kauffman’s narrative at times is peppered with fascinating tidbits about the attitudes and mentalities of the contemporary German elites. For example, we learn that Max Weber was a member of a German chauvinist organization, the “Hakata,” and he believed that the Poles were “an inferior race” (p. 18).  In a somewhat less rabid take, the Second Reich’s military governor of the Kingdom of Poland, General Hans von Beseler, was not hateful, just patronizing. He believed that the Poles were “immature” (unreif) because they wanted an independent Polish state immediately (p. 36). The governor believed that “the main thing… is to keep a tight rein on these political children, the Poles, and to educate them” (p.  78).

He lived by the adage, as far as the Poles, “trust them [not] an inch” (p.  168). His attitude was informed strictly by pragmatism and Germany’s national interest. “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” (p. 227). His rabid anti-Catholicism did not help matters (p. 181), but it was Polishness that determined the general’s attitude to the occupied people, even to the point of dismissing the local Protestant clergy as “Polonized” (verpolt, p. 159). Incidentally, the Jewish minority irked him too: “In the [Polish] cities… Jews, Jews, and Jews!” (p. 114). His objective in Poland was “combining a ‘civilizing mission’ with the securing of German interests in central Europe” (p. 40).

If things had gone Berlin’s way, the Poles could perhaps have counted on domestic autonomy, under an Austrian king, combined with full foreign dependency within a German-led Mitteleuropa. According to one version, Poland would be shifted eastward where, according to Kauffman, it would become a “colonizing power rather than colonial victim” (p. 46). The Polish perception was, however, that the ancient Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania would be restored on the solid principles of “free with free, equal with equal, brother with brother.” That has nothing to do with colonialism. If anything, it is inclusive and tolerant Polish cultural nationalism which had worked for 300 years before the destruction of the Commonwealth in the second half of the 18th century.

The author discusses Germany’s nationalities policy at some length. He credits the occupier with infrastructural improvements, for example (p. 228). He sheds some light on political, administrative, and educational issues but not nearly enough on economic matters. Kauffman does admit that: “Whatever impression the German army may have made, the single greatest source of popular resentment against the German occupiers, and the one most responsible for ensuring that the sought-after alliance would elude them, was the severe material privation that afflicted everyone in Poland during the war. The Great War’s voracious appetite for material led the Germans to plunder Poland of anything that could be of use to their war effort: wood, horses, metal, leather. The requisitions reached deeply into the private sphere, with doorknobs, cookware, and samovars disappearing from Polish homes, taken to be melted down and put to use in the service of German victory” (p. 55).

However, Kauffman fails sufficiently to elaborate on the issue. How did the confiscations and other oppressive measures impact the stirring of national consciousness among the natives? How did they boost Polish nationalism? There is very little substantial reflection on the forced food quota regime and its adverse impact on the perception of the German occupiers by all those impacted: from the rural peasant to the urban consumer. “The commodity whose disappearance caused the most severe suffering in wartime Poland was food” (p. 56). What were the consequences?

Kauffman limits himself to pointing out that “Many people in occupied Poland blamed their misfortunes on ‘speculators,’ a widely accepted code word for Jews” (p. 62). And then he shrugs: “This was made worse still by the general perception among Poles under German occupation that the Jews were somehow profiting from the new order and, with the blithe acquiescence of the Germans, were using the occupation to find new ways to exploit the Poles economically. Suspicions were increased by the number of Jewish businesses set up during the war and the number of army contracts given to Jews. This reinforced the popular association of Jews with ‘speculation,’ though it was merely a continuation of the ancient place of Jews in urban commerce in Poland” (p. 119). And the author essentially leaves it at that. Were there speculators? Did some happen to be Jewish, a legitimate contention given that the Christian middle class was historically woefully underrepresented among merchants, which Kauffman admits himself? Or was there simply just ugly anti-Semitism?

Complex phenomena tend to have multiple drivers, whether real or imagined.  For example, how was the anti-Jewish perception of “speculators” influenced by external factors? What about the lack of support for Poland’s independence among the Jewish population (and not just Polish peasants)? According to Kauffman, “The Jews may have suffered under Russian rule, but this did not mean that they (except for the few remaining assimilationists) were particularly happy about exchanging Russian rulers for Polish ones, an understandable fear given the intensity of Polish anti-Semitism” (p. 117). Was this an insolvable chicken and egg situation? What about the idea to require all voters to speak Polish fluently to be able to vote in municipal elections in Warsaw? For the Poles it was a no brainer; for mostly Yiddish speaking Jews that was discrimination, as it seems for Kauffman as well (p. 126). Same goes for the German law of 17 September 1917 that ensured that, “for the Jews of the Government-General, public education would be Polish education” (p. 161).

The historian does not tell nearly enough other than to charge that Jewish “movements were animated in part by the increasingly undeniable fact that a new Polish state was on the horizon.  At the same time, Polish political elites eyed Jewish mobilization with wariness, and… fretted that the Jews would somehow ruin it all for them (the Poles) just as it seemed that many of their desires were on the cusp of realization” (p.  119). The Polish elites felt that to regain the nation’s freedom Poland needed unity.  It was hard enough to achieve and maintain with the Polish society split hopelessly between the pro-Western and pro-Central Powers orientations. How to factor in the Jewish community pursuing multiple agendas? No wonder everyone was nervous.

At any rate, the point about misery and economic exploitation by the Germans and their collaborators should have been of particular interest to Kauffman because of his sweeping generalizations about the lowest stratum of Polish society. He avers that “Peasants in Poland, for example – who made up the majority of the population – were generally loyal to the Tsar, despised ‘their’ nobility, and were not interested in nationalism. The patriotic and nationalistic displays that the Germans not only allowed but actively encouraged seemed to them just another display of the power and influence of the hated ‘gentlemen’” (p. 49). And further, regarding the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which resulted, inter alia, in the amputation of a chunk of the Kingdom of Poland, to benefit Ukraine, the historian shrugs: “the great mass of the Polish peasants probably cared about it little or not at all” (p. 195). Perhaps Kauffman is right: but then, if they did not care, they would not be Polish, would they.

This is true enough of the common people everywhere. Usually, they do not care. Yet, as history would show the “gentlemen” were eventually able to mobilize the people for the cause of Poland, most notably during the Polish-Bolshevik War of 1920.  Many, perhaps most, peasants remained oblivious and indifferent during the First World War simply because passivity and detachment had been drummed into them by the system set up and maintained by the partitioning powers.  Once they tasted freedom in 1918, many embraced Polish nationalism together with it. German confiscations and other oppressive measures certainly did help in sparkling nationalism among the Polish masses.

In light of Kauffman’s insistence that the peasants “were not interested in nationalism,” and, thus, were not really Polish, it is weird that he can argue to the contrary when it fits his agenda: “Thus the farmers saw the Jews not only as their economic exploiters, but masters of a larger system of which they were powerless pawns… The Jews… are lording it over the farmers at the moment, but when their chance arrives, the Poles will put them in their place” (p. 119). How would be the Poles now? The peasants “were not interested in nationalism” so it could not have been them looking askance at Jews as Poles. Or does Kauffman want to have his cake and eat it too? Yet he continues: “This widespread hostility to the Jews, and the perception that they were the true beneficiaries of the occupation, may help explain why there was no more outright resistance to the Germans; like a psychological lightning rod, the Jews, in time-honored fashion, attracted the blame for the misfortunes suffered by those around them” (p. 119-120).

No one should deny the existence of waxing anti-Jewish animus among the peasantry.  However, the peasants tended to blame their misery on those they saw and interacted with most directly. Usually, they encountered the Jewish middlemen, while the German occupiers much less frequently.  The common people resented them both, even if the Germans more as an abstract power behind their exploitation.  The historian fails to address those issues adequately.  He merely blames them on traditional rustic anti-Semitism and, inexplicably, on Polish nationalism that, as he argues elsewhere, was entirely missing among the peasants. He should have resolved this contradiction. And what about the fact that the Poles generally tended to welcome the Jewish assimilationists? Even the National Democrats accepted them as their own provided they converted to Christianity. Meanwhile, the Jewish community, by and large, rejected assimilation and “the assimilationists [were] publicly branded as traitors” and attacked, for example, at a mass rally in Łódź on 21 December 1916 (p. 136).

Another weak part of Elusive Alliance is Kauffman’s general neglect of pre-1914 background. For example, the historian suggests that the Germans somehow facilitated the creation of a civil society in Congress Poland. However, he fails to comprehend that there existed a robust civil society, both overt and covert, for instance “flying universities” under the Russian occupation before the war.  The Polish institutions and activists simply took advantage of the German occupation to push their pre-war agenda and capitalize on the anticipated political opening as far as Poland’s drive for sovereignty. In particular, this concerned Polish Civic Committees. “The Germans grudgingly conceded that the committees were doing a good job given the difficulty of the task” (p. 109). Yet, the occupiers soon dissolved them.  The Committees were dominated usually by the right-wing National Democrats (which the occupiers mistakenly believed to be “Russian loyalists” – they were Polish Christian nationalists first, Entente supporters second, and ideologically opposed to Germany third).  Also, the very success of the Committees flew in the face of the German assertion that the Poles were incapable of self-government, a point Kauffman fails to comment upon.

There are some other mistakes and misconceptions. Wojciech Korfanty was a Christian Democrat, and not a National Democrat (p. 46).  Landed nobles (ziemianie) as members of the Council of State is a more commodious term than “magnates,” which narrowly denotes top aristocrats only (p.  88). Corvee means more narrowly szarwark (grunt work), and not pańszczyzna. The latter is – broadly speaking – a feudal obligation and conveys better the anti-Jewish flavor of “musimy odrabiać pańszczyznę żydom,” where “Jews” substitute for the “lords.” (p. 119).

In another instance, the author attaches an unnecessary “supposedly” to a tidbit about a Polish victory over the Muscovites in the early 17th century. The Szujskis were indeed brought to Warsaw in fetters to pay homage to the Polish King.  It’s better to look things up than sneer (p. 79). Kauffman marvels that, despite his seminal role, one of the Regents of the Kingdom of Poland, conservative and monarchist Prince Zdzisław Lubomirski, is largely a non-person in Polish historiography (p. 86).  Communist censorship anyone?  Diecezja kujawsko-kaliska are virtually identical to diecezja włocławska, which had been subsumed under the former between 1818 and 1925 (p.  148).  And the bishop during the First World War was the same: Stanisław Zdzitowiecki. All this confused the German bureaucrats and, apparently, Kauffman as well.

More seriously, the author’s grasp of the children’s school strike in Września of 1901-1904 is insufficient, omitting the fact that the Polish pupils were beaten by their Prussian teachers for refusing to pray in German. Only then did the parents get involved and rioted (p. 54). Wasn’t it legitimate to stand up against forced Germanization? Wouldn’t the historian defend his own children from abusive teachers? He credits the amateurs of the Polish Military Organization — “POW and allied militias” (p. 212) for the successful disarming of the German troops in Warsaw in November 1918. However, the city was awash with hardened professionals from the Dowbor-Musnicki White Army who almost captured Beseler himself.

Further, what about the scenario that the Germans willingly gave up the Congress Kingdom and its capital without a struggle as a gift to their protégé, Piłsudski, freshly released from internment? If that was not the case, why did the Poles fail to disarm the German troops in Wilno and further afield in the Ober Ost? They met with fierce resistance there and had to withdraw.  And the German troops in the east were arguably more demoralized than the ones stationed in Warsaw. No offence to the POW (Pol. Acronym – Polska Organizacja Wojskowa) and Kauffman, but the ease with which their capital fell into the Polish lap should be suspicious.

The scholar is convinced moreover that an anti-Jewish pogrom took place in Lwów in November 1918. That indeed is the consensus among Western scholars. In Poland, this narrative is hotly contested with the sides evenly split.  Some recent research strongly suggests, however, that it was not a pogrom but, rather, a riot by unruly troops and criminals, who robbed and killed everyone, with Christian victims outstripping the Jewish dead. The verdict is still out.

Kauffman further finds it necessary sometimes to fight the straw man of “Polish nationalism.” To this end, he boldly debunks the Piłsudskite myth of the Legions, as allegedly the main Polish fighting force. No serious historian would argue that, even though pre-war government propaganda of course did with much lingering success for the average person. Let us clarify this issue.

First, it is obvious to virtually all scholars that most Polish recruits fought for the three empires rather than in indigenous formations. Over 3 million Poles served in Prussian, Austrian, and Russian armies in the First World War. “Polish soldiers serving under an imperial banner were the norm, not an exception” (p. 69). Yes, they were indeed. But they were overwhelmingly draftees and not volunteers. They fought for the partitioning powers and not for Poland.

Second, there were no “Piłsudski’s Legions.” The clandestine Polish Military Organization (Pol.: POW-Polska Organizacja Wojskowa) of some 13,000 men and women adhered to him. As for regular troops, the idol of the socialist-nationalist left commanded merely a brigade, while there were a total 3 brigades of the Legions in the field, under an overall Austrian command.  A similar, competing legionary force was raised under Russian command.  However, a point virtually missing from Kauffman’s narrative, a much more numerous military outfit, which grew out of some 20,000 Americans of Polish descent, the so-called Blue Army, ultimately fielded about 70,000 men on the Western front. It was an integral part of the Allied (Entente) Forces. General Józef Haller provided military command. The Blue Army operated under the political leadership of the rightist Roman Dmowski and his Polish National Committee.

Kauffman is right that an average Polish recruit would have experienced battles under an alien banner. However, from the point of view of Poland’s independence the contribution of the Polish formations, whether the Legionaries or the Blue Army, in particular after 1918, were much more important that the imperial war experience. The Prussians, Austrians, and Russians essentially intended to preserve the status quo of foreign domination, at best, with a greater pinch of autonomy for the Poles. Why celebrate and commemorate their armies then, rather than a sorrowful tale of national tragedy, pitting brother against brother on the battlefields of the First World War?

In all fairness, however, the author is also capable of giving Polish nationalism a fair shake. He muses further that “The term ‘nationalism,’ while vague, is probably best for describing this general desire that something called Poland be returned to the map of Europe after the war, even if views varied widely on where Poland might be, or whether it would be sovereign, or who might be permitted to live there and call himself (or herself) a Pole” (p. 39). As far as the exactitude of this assessment, in comparison with the usual leftist braying about allegedly genocidal nationalism, Kauffman truly stands out here in a positive way. The historian also recognizes the special place of Catholicism in Polish history and society, even among socialists (p. 99). He can even be fair to the Endeks (members of the National Democracy moverment): “Aware that a new order was emerging in Poland, the National Democrats willingly participated in the institutions created by the occupiers, but they did so in part to block the ambitions of the Central Powers and their allies in Poland” (p.  204). Correct.

Last but not least, unlike many others, the author goes out of his way in spelling Polish names properly (e.g., p. 283 n. 82). Typos are exceptional (e.g., “Lubomirksi” instead of Lubomirski, p. 104, “Nowazcyński” for Nowaczyński, p. 180, “Boleslaus Skrzypczynski” in place of Bolesław Skrzypczyński, p. 185) and so are misspellings (e.g., Sosnowiec as “Sosnowice” throughout, e.g., p. 139,  192, 196).

Kauffman’s conclusion comes across as rather anti-climactic: “Germany’s project in Poland is best seen as an experimental way station between the ultimate disappearance of imperial sovereignty and the triumph of the sovereign nation-state” (p. 222). It was not foreordained that the empires would collapse, and nation-states succeed them, though. Force proved the ultima ratio as Germany defeated Russia only to succumb to the Western Allies, who supported a free Poland. And in 1918, the Poles jumped out of their “poorly sealed tomb” to claim independence, as they would in 1989 (p. 230). The rest is history. Ultimately, Elusive Alliance is an interesting monograph of what might have been. A reader not quite satiated with Kauffman’s take should run to Wiktor Sukiennicki’s magisterial and panoramic history of the region in the First World War. No one has yet been able to match that achievement.

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz

Washington, DC, 5 March 2020




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