War in Warsaw: The Experience of Varsovians under German Occupation

By: Courtney Blackington

In 1915, the German advance on Poland began. This invasion mixed the Polish, Soviet, and German identities. However, perhaps more significantly, it generated mass economic destruction and social devastation. As the Germans pushed towards Warsaw, Soviet forces withdrew, destroying infrastructure and forcibly deporting many Poles with them. At the same time, the Germans drove forward, seizing control of Poland and establishing government by occupation. This narrative begins at the moment that the Germans invade Warsaw.

This story develops from the postcard posted below, which shows the crumbling town of Sochaczew, from where the German advance on Warsaw began (All World Wars).

 Post Card 1

This postcard can be viewed from two distinct perspectives: that of the Poles and that of the Germans. From a Polish standpoint, massive destruction resulted from both World War I and the German invasion, creating substantial hostility towards the Germans. From a German viewpoint, the decaying streets of a Polish city presented a unique opportunity to transform and to manipulate the region in a way that would better the German state.

This story defines the conflicting aspirations of the Germans and the Poles. It describes how these incompatible goals increased Polish agency. Through a case study that examines student-led protest movements that challenged the German occupiers’ power, it explores how various groups emphasized the Polish identity as a unifying factor and mobilized this identity against German rule and towards Polish autonomy.

While two distinct and often-conflicting views caused Polish disenchantment with the Germans, some international observers failed to notice this sentiment. Instead, they equated a lack of sovereignty and a dire economic situation with a lack of agency. In September 1917, Francis C. Walcott, a member of the U.S. Commission to Poland, described Warsaw as a city “lined with people in the pangs of starvation” (First World War). Walcott depicts the Varsovian citizens as too feeble to resist German rule. This interesting primary source documents an outside account of German occupation in Poland, without the inherent national biases that characterize both Polish and German descriptions of the occupation. This portrait of Warsaw promotes the conception of Varsovians as weaklings that cannot possibly exert any decision-making power.

Cooper C. Graham also discusses Warsaw in his contextualization of the film project of American press photographer W.H. Durborough. In this piece, Graham weaves together Durborough’s descriptions of Warsaw during World War I. Durborough’s accounts describe Warsaw as full of “shifting…huge blocks of concrete” with “shattered spans” of major bridges. This piece focuses on cataloging the near total destruction of a previously urban area and, like Walcott’s piece, provides an outsider’s analysis of the situation. It spans beyond a mere replication of Walcott’s description, as Durborough was a photographer, and did not have extensive experience with the government, or Walcott’s foundational knowledge of Poland. As a result, Durborough’s account seems more detached in its analysis from any type of prejudice or expectation.

However, in reading Walcott and Graham, one misses both the Germans’ enthusiasm to reorder Warsaw and the Germans’ desires to make an advanced society out of mass destruction. A distinct German vision emerged as to how Warsaw could be transformed—not only to develop Polish society, but also to entrench German rule. The postcard below, entitled “Warsaw under German management,” encapsulates the German vision of a more advanced Warsaw (All World Wars).


This postcard shows Poles in Warsaw waiting in an organized line with a German soldier watching over them. It renders the German soldier as almost a father figure, who proudly watches over the Poles performing their assigned or predetermined task. Therefore, it symbolizes the German goal to create a Warsaw filled with Poles that subserviently obey the German occupying forces. By appearing to comply with the German soldiers, the Poles seem to submit themselves to their occupiers. This imagery suggests the near realization of a society organized under German “orderly” principles. Furthermore, it evokes a sense that the Poles lacked agency and submitted to the Germans voluntarily and readily.

While the previous postcard shows the success of the Germans’ first goal of ordering Warsaw, the postcard posted below depicts the Germans’ second goal of creating a more advanced society by rebuilding Warsaw out of its state of mass destruction (First World War).

 Postcard 3

The title of this postcard aptly summarizes it: “Opening of the new ‘von Beseler’ bridge across Vistula River in Warsaw. General-Governor von Beseler with his aids checking out the new bridge.” By showing the primary decision-maker of the region inspecting the new German-built bridge, this postcard draws attention to the improvements that the Germans made in Warsaw. This demonstrates the ability of the Germans to effectively reconstruct the city. By depicting German soldiers walking in straight lines behind the General-Governor and towards the lens, this image suggests that this occupying force cannot be reckoned with. As a result, this postcard creates a belief that the German goal of constructing an ordered Polish society under German control is quite possible, particularly if implemented forcefully by this formidable-looking army.

Despite the goals of rebuilding and reordering Warsaw, it is important to note that the Germans first and foremost sought to use Polish resources to better the German state. Marian K. Dziewanowski explores the economic difficulties the Poles experienced as a result of German policies. Dziewanowski contends that the occupation regime was clearly “geared to an economic exploitation of the country for [its] immediate benefit” (81). The Germans systematically dismantled Polish industries and shipped them to the Reich (Dziewanowski 81). This deconstruction permitted them to eliminate a competitor, to reshape Poland into the German’s agricultural base, and to provide a supply of manpower to the German Empire (Dziewanowski 81).

This description of German policies as aggressive and destructive seems to contradict the German aims of reconstructing Warsaw. However, it is likely that the Germans engaged in rebuilding Warsaw solely to profit off of it. As Dziewanowski discusses, the Germans introduced very low food rations, which suggests a disregard for the lives of these citizens (81). Furthermore, as Robert Blobaum finds, the Germans failed to regulate Warsaw’s economy, as the cost of living increased by about 667 percent during the German occupation (189). This blatant disregard for the Poles’ living standards perhaps made it more essential to organize society in a way that could increase support for German rule, which remained quite low. As a result, the Germans needed to permit a certain degree of Varsovian agency.

Governor-General Beseler.

Jesse Kauffman explores the Germans’ goal of creating an organized society in Warsaw through the lens of Governor-General Beseler’s policies. Beseler attempted to use Polish universities to train his ideal Pole: one who would desire to govern with domestic autonomy, while allowing the Germans to create Polish foreign and military policy (Kauffman, “Warsaw University”). Beseler believed that Polish nationalism was too strong to ignore (Kauffman, “Warsaw University”). However, he thought that by permitting the Poles to rule domestically, he could co-opt Polish demands for autonomy, while maintaining control of what the occupiers considered essential: foreign and military supremacy. In this piece, Kauffman portrays the conflicting goals of the occupiers and the occupied: the Germans wanted to create a well-ordered state that they ultimately dominated, while the Poles wanted independence and complete autonomy (Kauffman, “Warsaw University”). These irreconcilable ends prevented the German occupiers from having a peaceful rule.

These conflicting desires encouraged the emergence of Polish resistance. The Poles, particularly students, did not willingly acquiesce to the Germans’ demands. Robert Blobaum explores one of the more interesting resistance movements led by students at Warsaw’s higher education institutions. These Polish students led a barefoot movement, which criticized the Germans for failing to provide adequate amounts of coal, food, clothes, and employment (Blobaum). By refusing to wear shoes, the students forced society to discuss these economic and social issues, which further unearthed political tensions between the Poles and Germans (Blobaum). Additionally, by examining protests about the collapsed living conditions that resulted from German policies, Blobaum undermines the German postcard propaganda-like view that projected Warsaw as conquered and under the complete, well-organized control of the German army.

Polish students used several other types of movements, especially strikes, to further resist German occupation. In his dissertation, “Sovereignty and the Search for Order in German-Occupied Poland,” Jesse Kauffman describes how schools, particularly student organizations, began to play an important role in Warsaw’s cultural life and the resistance movement (Kauffman, “Sovereignty,” 177). He describes how students exerted agency to challenge the Germans’ power. He examines a celebration that turned rowdy in May 1917. This unruly celebration resulted in the arrest of two students (Kauffman, “Sovereignty,” 189). Polish students began a strike in response to these arrests, ultimately demanding that the Germans restore full autonomy to their educational institutions (Kauffman, “Sovereignty,” 190). By illustrating the diverse ways in which the Polish students in Warsaw attempted to combat German occupation, Kauffman emphasizes the ability of Warsaw’s students to influence German policy, and thus, Varsovian agency.

This story presents different visions of Varsovians: from Walcott’s weak and impoverished Pole, to Beseler’s ideal Pole, to a Pole that exhibits agency through participating in social protest movements. These distinctive portrayals of Varsovians interacted to create unique identities and a sense of Polish agency, which more broadly reflects the eastern Europeans’ process of developing and accepting different, sometimes conflicting, identities.

Works Cited

All World Wars. “German World War I Photographic Postcards 1914-1916.” Accessed November 16, 2014. http://www.allworldwars.com/German-World-War-I-Postcards-Part-II.html.

Blobaum, Robert. “Barefoot in Warsaw during the First World War.” East European Politics and Societies 27 (2012): 187-204. Accessed November 7, 2014. doi: 10.1177/0888325412467052.

Dziewanowski, Marian K. “World War I and the Marxist Movement of Poland.” American Slavic and East European Review 12 (1953): 72-92. Accessed November 24, 2014.

First World War. “An Account of Germany’s Treatment of Poland by U.S. Member of Commission to Poland, Frederick C. Walcott.” Last modified August 22, 2009. http://www.firstworldwar.com/source/poland_walcott.htm.

Graham, Cooper C. “The Kaiser and the Cameraman: W.H. Durborough on the Eastern Front, 1915.” Film History 22 (2010): 22-40. Accessed November 11, 2014. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/fih/summary/v022/22.1.graham.html

Kauffman, Jesse Curtis. “Sovereignty and the Search for Order in German-Occupied Poland, 1915-1918.” PhD diss., Stanford University, 2008.

Kauffman, Jesse. “Warsaw University under German occupation: state building and nation Bildung in Poland during the Great War.” First World War Studies 4 (2013): 65-79. Accessed November 10, 2014. doi: 10.1080/19475020.2012.761388.