R. O'Sullivan: Nazi Germany, Annexed Poland and Colonial Rule

Nazi Germany, Annexed Poland and Colonial Rule. Resettlement, Germanization and Population Policies in Comparative Perspective

O'Sullivan, Rachel
Modern Histories of Politics and Violence
London 2023: Bloomsbury
Anzahl Seiten
XI, 252 S.
£ 85.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Alexandra Pulvermacher, Institut für Geschichte, Alpen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt

In her 2023 published work “Nazi Germany, Annexed Poland, and Colonial Rule,” Rachel O’Sullivan delves into Nazi Germany’s territorial expansion, population policies, and the establishment of a racially stratified society in the newly formed Reichsgaue of Danzig-West Prussia and Wartheland in occupied Poland, examining these dynamics “through the lens of colonialism.”1 In the initial segment of her research, Rachel O’Sullivan analyses the colonial narratives within the German Empire that emerged during the latter half of the 19th century. Beginning in 1884, Germany acquired a colonial empire in Africa, surpassing its European territory fivefold. Following defeat in World War I, Germany forfeited its entire overseas colonial holdings, earning a reputation as a purportedly “poor colonial ruler.” However, this did not result in the dissolution of the numerous colonial institutions. Instead, in the years that followed, they doubled down on their efforts to uphold the memory of the lost colonies through various mediums like publications, exhibitions, lectures, films, commemorative events, and educational initiatives, all aimed at promoting their resurgence.

The second part of Rachel O’Sullivan’s study details how the German occupiers aimed to reconfigure the demographic makeup of the annexed Polish territories from 1939 on. At the centre of this segment is the resettlement of ethnic Germans from Bessarabia, Volhynia, and the Baltic states to the Reichsgaue of Danzig-West Prussia and in particular Wartheland. Drawing upon Elizabeth Harvey’s research2 she underscores the involvement of numerous Reich-German women in the extensive resettlement initiatives across occupied Poland. Specifically, members of the “NS-Frauenschaft” (National Socialist Women’s League) and the “Bund Deutscher Mädel” (League of German Girls, BDM) undertook a spectrum of tasks, from domestic chores such as cleaning and tending to livestock to preparing meals to receive the new settlers. Rachel O’Sullivan identifies colonial elements in this endeavour, as the new settlers faced significant constraints on their liberties. Regarded as second-class German citizens by the occupying forces, the resettled ethnic Germans were subjected to a process of “Germanisation.” Many among them possessed only limited or hardly any proficiency in German and struggled to meet the occupiers’ expectations regarding productivity, conduct, and cleanliness. Consequently, the assistance rendered by Reich-German women often manifested as paternalism. O’Sullivan draws a parallel to French women who instructed Vietnamese, Laotian, and Khmer women in Indochina on household tasks and childcare (p. 59). The emphasis on ethnic Germans as “colonial objects” appears peculiar, given that the violence endured by the hundreds of thousands of Poles and Jews displaced to accommodate these settlers far surpassed any discrimination the latter might have encountered.

The resettlement of ethnic Germans from the East to the annexed Polish territories, as well as the prior deportations of hundreds of thousands of Polish citizens to the General Government in Central Poland, were orchestrated according to the designs of German scientists. Among them was agricultural scientist Konrad Meyer, a key figure in formulating the “Generalplan Ost” (General Plan East), which envisioned the “Germanisation” of significant portions of East Central Europe. Since, according to Hitler, only soil, not people, could be “Germanised”3, this plan provided for the expulsion and partial murder of up to 30 million non-Germans. To execute their ambitious schemes, the German occupiers employed tactics of inclusion and exclusion, reserving inclusion primarily for ethnic Germans and, from 1941/42, for racially deemed valuable Poles. The majority of the populace, though, faced segregation. Poles were restricted from certain modes of transportation and were required to yield to Germans on the sidewalks. Polish children attended separate schools, receiving limited education. Both Polish citizens and resettled ethnic Germans underwent racial screenings within the “Deutsche Volksliste” (German People’s List, DVL), categorising them into different racial strata. Those classified in categories I and II were afforded the opportunity to remain in the annexed Polish territories, while those in categories III or IV faced forced labour or deportation to the General Government. Jews were increasingly excluded from both economic and social spheres, finding themselves confined to ghettos where starvation and disease claimed lives as early as 1940. Rachel O’Sullivan asserts that murder served as a final exclusionary measure, employed in both colonial settings and incorporated Polish territories. However, drawing an equivalence between the slaughter of European Jews and colonial atrocities, simply because half of the Jewish victims did not perish in gas chambers, strikes me as deeply problematic (pp. 126–127, 168). Furthermore, I’m firmly at odds with Rachel O’Sullivan’s contention, citing Dirk Moses, that the perpetrators’ intentions should be disregarded in cases of mass murder (pp. 127–128). This aspect, in fact, stands as one of the defining characteristics that set the Holocaust apart from colonial atrocities.

In the third part of her study Rachel O’Sullivan traces how colonial enthusiasts shifted their focus towards expansion in the East starting from 1941, as endeavours to secure overseas colonies faltered. Organisations such as the BDM recruited from the ranks of the “Koloniale Frauenschule” (Colonial Women’s School), while the “Reichskolonialbund” (Reich Colonial League, RKB) shifted focus to Poland. Discourses surrounding colonial expansion overseas and in Eastern Europe exhibited significant overlaps, both emphasising the perceived shortage of “Lebensraum” (living space) for Germans.

In the field of historical research, comparisons are generally valued for their potential to expand our understanding, provided they are conducted systematically and judiciously. Such comparisons necessitate a clear framework in terms of both time and space. Unfortunately, such framework is missing here. Rather, Rachel O’Sullivan seems to cherry-pick elements from a broad spectrum of colonial histories in Africa, Asia, and Australia, even drawing parallels with the discrimination faced by African and Native Americans in the USA (e.g. pp. 122–124), to equate these with the practices of Nazi rule in Poland. By employing such an unsystematic, random approach, any form of power imbalance could be labelled as “colonial.”

Moreover, comparisons are not merely about identifying similarities; they are equally about discerning differences. Perhaps the most glaring disparity between Nazi rule in Poland and colonial governance overseas was the unprecedented extent of German plans, evolving from the Nisko Plan to the Long-Range and Short-Range Plans4, culminating in the “Generalplan Ost” and the subsequent “Generalsiedlungsplan” (General Settlement Plan), which envisaged the expulsion and murder of millions of Slavs.5 The Nazi notion of “civilizing” the East didn’t pertain to its inhabitants but solely to the land.6

While extreme violence was not uncommon in the overseas colonies, there was a notable absence of the deliberate and systematic efforts to expel or exterminate entire ethnic groups, or substantial portions thereof, as was not only plotted in Poland but also realised. The mass atrocities committed by Nazi Germany in Poland were emblematic of an extreme dictatorship evolving into an empire, unleashing war to realise its dystopian vision rooted in biologist racial ideology. Categorising the German rule in the incorporated Polish territories as merely “colonial” falls far short of the mark and paves the way for levelling the historical specificity not only of the Holocaust, but also the Nazi mass crimes against Poles, Roma, psychiatric patients, and others in Poland. German rule in Poland did indeed display colonial features, but the systemic comparison with traditional overseas colonialism, as presented here, appears somewhat arbitrary and unproductive. Though the comparative, postcolonial approach is not quite convincing, the chapters delving into colonial discourses offer compelling reading.

1 David Furber pursues a similar approach in his dissertation. Cf. David Furber, Going East. Colonialism and German Life in Nazi-Occupied Poland, New York 2003.
2 Elizabeth Harvey, Women and the Nazi East. Agents and Witnesses of Germanization, New Haven 2003.
3 Cf. Andreas Wirsching, “Man kann nur Boden germanisieren:” Eine neue Quelle zu Hitlers Rede vor den Spitzen der Reichswehr am 3. Februar 1933, in: Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte 49 (2001), pp. 517–550.
4 Cf. Philipp Rutherford, Prelude to the Final Solution. The Nazi Program for Deporting Ethnic Poles, 1939–1941, Lawrence 2007.
5 Cf. Czesław Madajczyk (ed.), Vom Generalplan Ost zum Generalsiedlungsplan. Dokumente, Munich 1994.
6 Birthe Kundrus, Colonialism, Imperialism, National Socialism. How Imperial Was the Third Reich?, in: Bradley Naranch / Geoff Eley (eds.), German Colonialism in a Global Age, Durham 2014, pp. 330–346, here p. 343; cf. Michael Wildt, “Eine neue Ordnung der ethnographischen Verhältnisse:” Hitlers Reichstagsrede vom 6. Oktober 1939, in: Zeithistorische Forschungen/Studies in Contemporary History 3 (2006), pp. 129–137, https://zeithistorische-forschungen.de/1-2006/4759 (28.03.2024).

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