The Eastern Kaiserreich’s “Work of Civilization”: The Civilian Experience in Occupied Lithuania, 1914-1919

by Conor Somervell
December 5th, 2014

    Das Land Ober OstModern historians on the First World War focus on Belgium and Northern France to gain insight into the workings and experiences of civilian life under a foreign oppressor. However, Belgium was not the only German-occupied territory during the war, and does not tell the full story of how the German Empire treated those civilians who lived in hotly-contested wartime zones. The Eastern Front is a spectacular example to contrast the experiences of the Western Front, as war was more mobile, the cultures more starkly foreign to each other. The military-occupied region of the Baltic Coast and northern Poland was handled in a different manner and with vastly different aims than Belgium. Erich Ludendorff’s dominion in the east, the affectionately-named Ober Ost (In full: Oberbefehlshaber der gesamten Deutschen Streitkräfte im Osten, or The [Land of the] Supreme Commander of All German Forces in the East) was built solely for resource exploitation to fund the Western front. But how brutal were German soldiers towards the Lithuanians, and was brutality part of Germany’s official policy?

    The brunt of my research focuses around the the work of the historian Vejas Liulevicius, who pioneered modern research on civilian life in the Ober Ost, in his book War Land on the Eastern Front: Culture, National Identity, and German Occupation in World War I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000). In it, he presents a stellar review of personal accounts towards the Germans and establishes a strong, hearty narrative about the dynamics of civilian life in a Ludendorff’s military state. His work is notable primarily because he draws from innumerable primary sources that were previously unacknowledged due to either a disinterest in Lithuanian cultural history by Western historians, or by the difficulty in acquiring such sources in English during the twentieth century.

    But first, it is important to understand the context in which Liulevicius writes, and for that we shall examine the text that provides a strong introduction to the planned German policy in the Ober Ost, Wiktor Sukiennicki’s Ober Ost Land: Ludendorff’s “Another Kingdom” (1915-1918) (Rome: Institutum Historicum Polonicum, 1978). In it, he presents the idea of Germany’s “Work of Civilization” in the east, which would feasibly go beyond military control and resource exploitation by removing the influence of the predominant Polish population in Lithuania and cultivating a devoutly pro-German culture and infrastructure. The first way to establish German cultural hegemony in the Ober Ost was to determine what the dominant languages spoken were; it was found that roughly 50% of the population spoke Polish, 44% Yiddish, and only 3% Lithuanian. Initially, Sukiennicki writes, the Germans favored the Lithuanians, who were more open to German dominion in 1915 than the Poles.

Erich Ludendorff, Oberbefahlshaber in the East

    The memoirs of Erich Ludendorff, the Supreme Commander in the East, further explain German intentions towards the administration of the Ober Ost. In it, Ludendorff asserts that, although the Germans were strict and severe with their administration of the region, their policies that were directed towards extracting the resources of the Ober Ost with maximum efficiency were beneficial to the populace itself, who reaped the rewards of the now German-controlled Lithuanian economy. As Ludendorff writes in Ludendorff’s Own Story (New York: Harper & Bros. Publishers, 1919(American printing title, published in London in 1920 as My War Memories), “What we accomplished together […] was admirable in every respect and worthy of the German character. It benefited the army and Germany as well as the local inhabitants and the country.” (Ludendorff 223) This first-hand account writing by Ludendorff is integral towards understanding the German intent towards the occupation of Lithuania. However, it falls short as it is inherently biased: first, Ludendorff is the German Supreme Commander, so his experiences are vastly different from those of either civilian Lithuanians or even German soldiers; second, the memoirs were written after the First World War, and could thereby be subject towards revision and falsification by Ludendorff to maintain that he was justified in what happened in the Ober Ost. Therefore, the text is interesting to regard when given the background by Sukiennicki, and decently outlines the intents of the Germans, but does not show the civilian perspective.

    To solve this, we will look at two more sources. First, we will examine the monumental work of the historian Vejas Liulevicius, who pioneered modern research into Ober Ost civilian life in his flagship piece War Land on the Eastern Front. Second, we will compare what Liulevicius writes with the accounts of Lithuanian Jews in the collection of eyewitness accounts collected by Anatolii Chayesh in his online text, On the Front Line in Lithuania, 1915.

    Vejas Liulevicius’ War Land goes into much deeper detail than Sukiennicki’s work, as it brings in a multitude of newly-found, first-hand accounts. Through this, Liulevicius draws the narrative that the administration of the Ober Ost was ultimately chaotic; though Ludendorff did not set about to treat the local population brutally, the officers of the Ober Ost were scrambled and unsupervised, and as a result had a large opportunity to abuse the local population to their leisure without any repercussions. In essence, the chaotic construction of the Ober Ost, a tangled mass of confused German officers with de facto free reign, allowed for brutality to become widespread. As an example, Liulevicius looks towards the uprising in the village of Geisteriskiai, where the presiding army, “fearing a wider uprising, […] reacted with panicked ruthlessness, supposedly burning several farmers to death in their homes, while others were rounded up and sent to jail. Several youths implicated in the activities were tortured and shot in military prisons, according to native sources.” (Liulevicius 183).

St. Casimir’s Church in Vilnius, 1917

He argues that the main reason that the Ober Ost was given its cruel nature came about in the winter-spring of 1916-17, following an incredibly poor harvest; the swampy build of the land combined with the destruction caused by Russia’s scorch-and-burn retreat in 1915 meant that Baltic farms could barely produce enough to feed themselves, and even most of that was confiscated by the Germans. Liulevicius provides the claims and anecdotes to explain this economic disaster, and he is backed by Sukiennicki’s Ober Ost Land, which provides statistics for what was taken by the Germans: “in 1916-17, less than 40% of the wheat, 19% of the potatoes, less than 3.5% of the butter, less than 2.5% of the eggs, and less than 15% of the meat, were left for the native population, while the rest was either consumed by the army or exported to Germany.” (Sukiennicki 208) This put great strain on the civilians in the Ober Ost by causing mass shortages, famine, and exacerbated already-present ethnic tensions between the Lithuanians, Poles, and Germans.

    Liulevicius shows that German soldiers varied in their treatment of the natives by examining two primary different accounts of soldiers among native populations. The first account he finds that the soldiers took kindly to the natives, as living among them gave them some stability and comfort. However, he also explains that when Germans suffered from hunger and fatigue, they took it out on local populations and procedurally stole food from already starving populations, wherein the “Ober Ost increasingly became a free-for-all of pilfering from military stores, black-market trading, and stealing from the impoverished natives.” (Liulevicius 187)

    The accounts retold by Chayesh also claim that German treatment of civilians varied greatly. One eyewitness writes that in Siauliai, “In the first days after the Germans arrived, they plundered private homes and also carried out requisitions,” while in that same year in the village of Tyrkshle, another eyewitness writes, “That evening the first German unit entered the village, 12 scouts, all Lithuanians from East Prussia. They talked freely with the Christian population, who brought them eggs, milk, and kvas. The scouts said that they didn’t feel like they were among enemies, but among brothers, saying that after the German victory the land would be given to the Lithuanians, not the Jews and Russians.” From seeing how varied the German modus operandi in the captured villages was, it is evident that there was no grand scheme for how the Ober Ost as a whole treated the native civilians.

    In conclusion, was the German occupation of Lithuania brutal and mismanaged, and did it lead to a generally swift decrease in the standard of living of the population? Vejas Liulevicius argues that most certainly the German occupation of the region was chaotic and devastating, but not systematically so; brutality and mass abuse of civilians came about as a matter of course from unsupervised, confused officers working in a land that was both foreign and hostile. The plans for the Ober Ost intended to develop and grow the region as a German colony for resources, but it collapsed miserably due to general mismanagement, a disregard for the values of the populace, and external economic pressures exacerbated by disappointing resource gathering.