This meticulously researched book, a publication of the author’s 2008 Habilitationsschrift, will prove to be exceptionally useful to scholars of German-Polish relations, Germany and Poland during the First World War, and military occupations. Stempin’s topic is the occupation regime established by the Germans in occupied Russian Poland during the First World War, the Imperial Government-General of Warsaw. The first three chapters give a good account of the ad hoc jumble of institutions created at the outset of the war that eventually provided the institutional foundation for the creation of the Government-General, which was established in 1915 and commanded by a German general, Hans Hartwig von Beseler. Stempin gives a detailed account of the occupation regime’s structure before launching into his central theme, which is illustrated in chapter five. In many ways the heart of the book, it is here that Stempin shows how the complete lack of a political vision in the early days of the regime was transformed, largely under Beseler’s guidance, into a policy of accommodation vis-à-vis the occupied population, particularly in matters of culture. In general, expressions of Polish nationalism and patriotism – long repressed by the Russians – were to be tolerated and even encouraged, so long as this openness was not turned against the occupiers themselves. Remaining chapters show the way in which this attempt to conciliate the Poles unfolded, with a main focus on educational and religious institutions and organizations, including those that organized the communal life of Polish Jews.
Throughout the book, Stempin is excellent at showing the deep structural flaws built in to Beseler’s policies, flaws which ultimately doomed them to failure. One of the major problems was the conflict between Beseler’s attempts to gain Polish goodwill, such as by permitting large public celebrations in 1916 of the anniversary of the Constitution of 3 May, and the brutally rapacious economic policies that saw Poland plundered to feed the German war effort. In addition, the Germans’ policies also suffered from a lack of clarity and shared strategic vision at the highest levels of government. This led to one of the most egregious missteps by the regime, its attempt to recruit Polish soldiers into German service. In the first year of German rule, Beseler’s policy evolved from the short term goal of maintaining order in the occupied region to the long-term ambition of securing Polish support for establishing German sovereignty over a dependent but autonomous Polish state. In mid-1916, Beseler secured the support of the civilian and military political establishment for a formal proclamation of German support for the restoration of Polish statehood once the war was over. Unfortunately, the crucial backing of Erich Ludendorff was bought only by acceeding to his demands that Polish manpower be made available for German use immediately. In November 1916, the proclamation was duly issued, but it was followed almost immediately by an appeal for Polish military volunteers. This created the impression, never to be dispelled, that the proclamation was merely a cynical ploy intended to lure Polish cannon fodder into the service of the Kaiser.
Stempin also details another major flaw in the occupation regime’s policies: partly as a result of the lack of clarity and decisiveness on the part of the occupiers, and partly as a result of the complexity of social, cultural, and political conditions within Poland, the Germans frequently found themselves overwhelmed by forces they had believed they could master. The fascinating chapter on the regime’s relationship with Poland’s German minority, and particularly with its links to the Protestant church in Poland (the Evangelisch-Augsburgische Kirche/EAK) shows this dynamic at work at the same time that it illuminates the inner life of an important institution. For the duration of the war, German nationalists saw the support of the EAK as a way to support the German minority in Poland, most of whose members belonged to the Church. However, before the war the church had hovered on the edge of a schism between the upper levels of the clergy, who had come to see themselves as culturally and politically Polish, and wished the Church to follow suit, and pastors and parishioners who saw the institution as inalienably German and wanted their particular rights and customs protected. The positions of both camps hardened and intensified as the war went on and it became clear that Germany was trying to win Polish support for the establishment of a Polish state. The occupation regime tried to find a way to satisfy both parties, but Stempin vividly details the acrimonious meetings of the EAK that tried, and failed, to find an acceptable compromise. The end result was the sharpening of prewar divisions and their transmission to the postwar Rzeczpospolita in a state of white-hot antagonism.
This pattern was repeated in many of the institutions the Germans used to try and further their (murky) ambitions. Attempts to liberalize the prewar political and cultural climate led to sharp conflicts, usually drawn along national lines, that were then handed on to post-1918 Poland as one of the occupation’s many destructive legacies.
Stempin’s research is extensive and draws on Polish and German archival and published sources in this book, though it rests on a foundation of German reports as well as the delightfully revealing letters that Beseler wrote to his wife during the war, which are housed at the German military archive in Freiburg im Breisgau. The massive amount of information in the book could have done with a deeper and more sophisticated interpretive framework. Stempin’s main arguments are that the German occupation of the First World War was markedly different from that of the Second, and that the German policies represent an attempt to cloak the hard hand of power in the draperies of culture. Both are true enough, but do not do much to expand our understanding of the period. To some degree at least, this is due to the highly outdated historiographical landscape within which Stempin situates his book; the introduction does not seem to have been updated in the twelve years that have elapsed since the completion of his Habilitation and this publication. Some recent work, for example by Marta Polsakiewicz and Robert Spät, is listed in the bibliography, but Stefan Lehnstaedt’s important contributions go unmentioned. In addition, there is not even a cursory nod to the literature that has appeared in English, such as the work done by Robert Blobaum on Warsaw during the war or by Winson Chu on the German minority in Lodz. The “forgotten Government-General” was indeed largely unknown when Stempin began his research. But it is, in truth, no longer forgotten, and has not been for some time.