The First World War and the Civilian Population

Der erste Weltkrieg und die Zivilbevoelkerung

Schleicher, Josef. "The First World War and the Civilian Population." Volk auf dem Weg, January, 2009, 8-9.

This translation from the original German-language text to American English is provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado

A Conference of Historians in Bovenden near Goettingen

From l. to r.: Dr. Alfred Eisfeld, Dr. Dietmar Neusatz, and Dr. Otto Luchterhandt
Dr. Wiolfram Dornik

Toward the end of November, 2008 the Goettingen Working Group and the Scientific Commission for Germans in Russia and the CIS staged a convocation of scientific specialists on the topic "Der erste Weltkrieg und die Zivilbevoelkerung in den Gebieten von der Ostsee bis zum Schwarzen Meer unter besonderer Beruecksichtigung der Deutschen. [The First World War and the Civilian Population in Areas from the Baltic See to the Black Sea, with Special Consideration to Germans]." The conference site was the Rural Public University Mariaspring in Bovenden near Goettingen (Lower Saxony).

On behalf of the Goettingen Working Circle, its president, Prof. Dr. Otto Luchterhandt welcomed the many participants from inside Germany and abroad (Austria, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, etc.) and provided an overview of the history of the Working Group from its establishment in 1946 to today. During these years, he reported, the Working Group transformed itself into an Association which performs professional research on the juridical, political, and socio-economic situation of Germans in Eastern Europe, as well as on problems of development of Germany and its Eastern-European neighbors and their cooperation within the Grater European framework. The 90th anniversary of the end of the First World War (July 28, 1914 - November 11, 1918) seemed a fitting occasion to delve into the situation of the civilian population during that time.        

In his introductory remarks, Dr. Alfred Eisfeld, operating director of  the Working Group and organizer of the convocation, pointed to the fact that the consequences of the war had already been researched even during that war, and that there are "entire libraries with books on the Germans, Poles and Jews" of the time period. However, connections and parallels with the situation of the civilian population under different occupation powers as well as under their own governments have remained mostly outside the purview of researchers.

War Planning

Dr. Reinhard Nachtigal

The first presenter, Dr. Reinhard Nachtigal, a historian of Eastern Europe and the Military, dealt with the topic [henceforth, all title will be cited in translation- Tr.:] "Planning for War and Policies Leading Toward War." According to his data, the Central Powers did not have long-term plans for war, and none had expected the war to last so long. Most of their plans for war lost their validity during its course.

Dr. Wolfram Dornik of Graz spoke on the Ukraine policies of Austria-Hungary. The focus of this policy was the economic interests of the Danube monarchy, which -- fearing it might strengthen its own minorities -- avoided open support of the Ukrainians' striving for independence. The Ukrainian nationalist movement was supported only hesitatingly; still, Ukrainian activists in their prisons of war were allowed to publicize their goals. Furthermore, there came to be the formation of a Ukrainian legion composed of Austrian soldiers, which was present during the occupation of Ukraine, but played only a minor role.

However, the Central Powers, including Austria-Hungary, by concluding their own February, 1918 peace treaty with Ukraine even prior to the Brest-Litovsk treaty with Russia (March, 1918), contributed considerably to the separation of Ukraine from Russia. As its reward, Austria-Hungary desired to extract a million tons of grain from Ukraine. But this desire of the economically down-at-the-heels Danube monarchy would not be fulfilled, and the Austrian-Hungarian occupation of Ukraine ended in November, 1918. Dr. Arkadius Stempin of Freiburg reported on the German occupation power and the war-time Polish, Jewish and German civilian population in Poland. He stated that the German administration was often rather partisan , but that despite this, hopes of some Germans for limitless patronage were not fulfilled, since they, as everyone else, were equally dependent on requisitioning. In summary, Stempin indicated that the German minority actually had the least reason for criticism of the occupation power, but, subsequent to the breakdown of the German occupation, that same minority was exposed to the whims of the Polish state and had to struggle for physical survival without any protection whatsoever.

Further areas covered [at the convention], such as "The Enemy Within," "Loyalty of Ethnic and Social Groups in North America," "Russian Policies With Respect to the Civilian Population in the the Polish Kingdom during the First Year of the War," and "The Prussian-German Army and the Civilian Population in Eastern Prussian Provinces Before and During the First World War" led to lively exchanges of opinion.

Also impressive was the presentation by Dr. Frank M. Schuster of Lodz entitled "Eastern European Jews During the First World War," which revealed completely new dimensions of the hopes and sufferings of the civilian population engendered by the war. 

Dr. Veronika Wendland of Munich presented the topic "The Civilian Population of Galicia During the First World Ware: Loyalties and Identities." Other themes touched on were "The Russian Society and the 'German Question' During the First World War," "The First World War and the German Population in South Ukraine" and "Concerning the Peculiarities of the anti-German Campaign: Goyvernement Ekaterinoslav."

German-Russians in the Hinterlands

Dr. Sergej G. Nelipowitsch
Dr. Ljubow N. Shwanka

The topic "The Deportation of the Germans of Warsaw, 1914-1915: General Problems and Peculiarities" by Dr. Sergej G. Nelipowitsch of Moscow opened a new page on the history of World War I, the German Diaspora in Russia, from the outset, was considered by the Tsarist government as a secret reserve of the enemy; and the Russian people were told that the First World War was a war against the historical enemy of the Slavs. Reprisals were directed against the Germans of Russian citizenship, who had assimilated the least.

Nelipowitsch described this situation with the Government of Warsaw as an example. In 1914 Warsaw, with its 800,000 residents, was the third-largest city of Russia, and 20,000 of them were Germans; and the Germans formed about 4 percent of the population of the Government of Warsaw as a whole.

A portion of the German population in and around Warsaw had lived there for centuries and was already become strongly Polish. Most of them were part of the nobility and of urban strata. The other portion of the German population of the Government was comprised of workers and farmers who had settled there following the partition of Poland. Many of these German farmers were from Volhynia, the Baltic, and from the Volga region.

Only a few weeks after outbreak of the war, Governor General A.O. Von Essen ordered the local authorities to put together lists of "unreliable" Germans. Deported first were those Germans who lived on the land as former "colonists." Like the Jews, they were often branded by the Russians authorities as sympathizers of Germany. Although, as Dr. Nelipowitsch pointed out, this accusation was without base, they led to the dissolution of German landownership in the Warsaw Gouvernement. And there were always those who were eager to enrich themselves heavily at the cost of the deported Germans.

In contrast with other Russian cities such as St. Petersburg and Moscow, Warsaw did not experience anti-German pogroms; nevertheless, many German-Russians must be considered victims not only of the war, but of hatred for foreigners.

Dr. Irma Tscherkasjanova of St. Petersburg illuminated the problems of German-language education in Russia during World War I. The worst consequences resulted from the ban on the German language in school instruction; most elementary schools in the German settlements in Russia had to be closed simply due to the lack of enough teachers with knowledge of Russian.

Dr. Ljubow N. Shwanka of Charkov described the matter of refugees within the Russian Empire's judicial system during World War I. The first refugee trek on Russian territory arose during the fall of 1914, and by December, 1915, there were as many as three million refugees, most of whom were women, children and older people, who left all their belongings and properties in an attempt to save their lives.

Prof. Dr. Heinrich Bodensick reported on the "Migration Suggestions" for German-Russians in 1918/1919. He analyzed the proposals of the member of a financial committee of Omsk, Julius Henning, who had succeeded in fleeing to Germany, and who presented his proposals to the German public and to the authorities. Although up to the end of 1917 he had still strongly proposed returning to Germany to the Germans in Russia, in 1919 he expressed the idea of settling five to fifteen million Germans in Western Siberia, which was governed by Admiral Koltschak, an idea that, from an economic viewpoint, seemed to be a good notion ...      

Dr. Wolfgang Kessler of Herne analyzed other notions on the solution of the minority problem during the First World War. Proposals of this sort, too, affecting mostly peoples in Central and South Europe, were realized only partially.

At the conclusion of the get-together, Prof. Dr, Luchterhandt praised the high quality of the presentations and discussion contributions, while Dr. Eisfeld summed up: "Expectations for this conference have been met."

*Text and Photographs by Josef Schleicher
*Publications of the Goettinger Working Group
*may be ordered via

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller