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).


Reply by R. O'Sullivan to A. Pulvermacher's review of "Nazi Germany, Annexed Poland and Colonial Rule"

Von Prinz, Claudia14.06.2024

I understand that the comparative approach to the history of National Socialism and the Holocaust may not be favoured by all scholars and I am open to fair criticism and debate on its strengths and weaknesses. However, in the interest of H-Soz-Kult readers but also to avoid my work being misconstrued as inflammatory and drawn into the continuing polemic debates on Holocaust singularity, I wish to offer clarification on a selection of significant points raised within the review which are regrettably misleading and misrepresent my arguments.

Alexandra Pulvermacher claims that in my book I emphasise the ethnic Germans as “colonial objects.” Perhaps this is a typing error as I do not use this term but refer to elements of the treatment of ethnic Germans as similar to that of a “Colonial Other.” On the topic of the Holocaust, Pulvermacher states that “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” is “deeply problematic.” I agree that such a reductive argument is deeply problematic, but it was not one I made. This topic appears in a paragraph discussing the prominence of Auschwitz and gas chambers in academic and public narratives about the Holocaust (p. 126). The paragraph discusses how academic scholarship has, however, increasingly begun to move away from such a focus, looking, for example, at cases such as mass killing by shooting. As my book explains, such research, as well as the recognition that the Holocaust did not only take place in camps and gas chambers, allows for the potential of more suitable, yet still suitably nuanced, comparisons with methods of murder used in colonial territories.

Furthermore, Pulvermacher’s claim that I draw such an equivalence “simply” based on the number of Jewish victims who were murdered in gas chambers is misleading. The sentence is one within an entire chapter that discusses numerous exclusionary tactics and ultimately moves away from attempting to directly compare or contrast mass murder or murder techniques. Instead, in one of the book’s main arguments on the topic of the Holocaust, I place both Nazi Germany’s exclusionary and inclusionary policies, which concurrently aimed at the removal of ethnic and racial heterogeneity, into the theoretical model of settler colonialism (p. 128-132). Settler colonialism operated based on the principle of “destroy to replace,” using a variety of methods to do so. 1 The book discusses this and highlights five settler colonial “transfer” or removal techniques that I argue can be used as a framework to analyse Nazi Germany’s policies of settlement, Germanization, racial categorisation, deportation and murder in the annexed territories.

Pulvermacher states that she disagrees with my contention that “the perpetrators’ intentions should be disregarded in cases of mass murder.” This point has been shortened and erroneously rephrased, thus distorting my argument. If one reads the whole sentence, the reference I make to A. Dirk Moses’ discussion of perpetrator intent is not to suggest intent should be disregarded. Instead, I highlight the complication, as Moses does, that whether civilians are being killed with genocidal intent or military intent surely matters very little to those civilians, given that they are being killed either way (p.127-128). This point appears in a paragraph where I describe, as many others have done, how Raphael Lemkin’s first definition of genocide mentioned “colonization” but not “intent”. This was only added to the legal definition by the United Nations in the wake of the Holocaust. In historical cases of colonial mass violence, legally proving intent is extremely complicated and therefore the current legal definition of genocide does not offer an adequate category for the historical comparison of the Holocaust and other instances of mass killing.

Pulvermacher asserts that “there was a notable absence of the deliberate and systematic efforts to expel or exterminate entire ethnic groups, or substantial portions thereof” in the overseas colonies. It is unclear which overseas colonies she is referring to, but this statement contradicts both what I discuss in the book and years of scholarship in Colonial and Imperial History and Genocide Studies on the treatment of indigenous populations by European colonial and imperial powers.2 Efforts to expel and exterminate (it should be noted that extermination did not always entail murder) entire or parts of ethnic groups can be seen in numerous territories, in North America, Canada, Ireland, Australia, and Tasmania, to name but a few. These examples have not been formally recognized as genocide, again demonstrating the complications of the term, but there is at least one notable case from the German overseas colonies - the genocide perpetrated against the Herero and Nama in German South-West Africa. Similarly, as previously mentioned, my book discusses at length how settler colonialism offers a specific framework of a type of colonialism which sought the complete removal of specific population groups. Pulvermacher does not mention this is the review.

In the review’s conclusion, Pulvermacher implies my book categorises German rule in Poland as “merely colonial”, thus paving the way for “levelling the historical specificity” of the Holocaust and Nazi crimes. Again, this is misleading as I do not once suggest that Nazi rule was “merely colonial.” Despite explicitly stating differences between the various elements of Nazi policies and justifications in annexed Poland and colonial contexts throughout the book, and clearly noting the Holocaust was not a colonial genocide (for example, p.128, p.170). Pulvermacher does not mention any of these distinctions in the review. My book’s aim is not to try to prove that Nazi Germany’s expansion or violence was colonial; instead, it is to utilise a colonial lens to analyse a wide range of elements inherent to Nazi rule to determine which are suitable for comparison and which are not, thus discovering what was truly specific about Nazi Germany’s policies and actions. As Frank Bajohr and I have previously highlighted, the comparative approach is a legitimate one which has been repeatedly overshadowed by attempts to portray it as taboo and polarize opinions.3 Unfortunately, although this may not have been Pulvermacher’s intention, the review complements the narrative of those who generalise the colonial analytical perspective, pulling even nuanced comparisons back to unproductive disputes on rigid Holocaust specificity and furthering fears of relativization. As with the recent, unnecessarily scandalized public discussions surrounding the so-called Historikerstreit 2.0, a balance desperately needs to be struck. Scholars do not have to agree, but they should fairly engage with one another and avoid contributing to the polemics that serve neither academia nor the public.

1 See for example Patrick Wolfe, Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native, in: Journal of Genocide Research 8,4 (2006), p. 387-409.
2 See for example Caroline Elkins, Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya, London 2005; Michelle Gordon, Extreme Violence and the “British Way”: Colonial Warfare in Perak, Sierra Leone and Sudan, London 2020; Kim A Wagner, Savage Warfare: Violence and the Rule of Colonial Difference in Early British Counterinsurgency, in: History Workshop Journal 85 (2018), p. 217–237.
3 Frank Bajohr / Rachel O’Sullivan, Holocaust, Kolonialismus und NS-Imperialismus: Wissenschaftliche Forschung im Schatten einer polemischen Debatte, in: Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte 70,1 (2022), p. 191–202.

Veröffentlicht am
Redaktionell betreut durch
Mehr zum Buch
Inhalte und Rezensionen
Weitere Informationen
Sprache der Publikation
Sprache der Rezension