The Big Picture

When I first began researching colonialism, I held a rather simple, functionalist view of it as a situation that occurs when groups of people who believe themselves to be superior gain effective control over another place, regardless of whether they call it “colonialism.” Being an expatriate in a foreign land one feels one owns is a fairly singular feeling, whether one is a United Fruit Company representative in Costa Rica, Russian officer in Kazakhstan, an Austrian bureaucrat in the Banat, or a Prussian Beamter in Kujawien. Instead of terminology, one should focus on the effects of being a foreign power holder surrounded by people who probably prefer you were not there.

As I delved into the matter, I came to see that Germany’s ambiguous colonial history is analogous to that of the United States. In the US, one finds that the primary direction of colonization was to the West. It grew out of the New England settlers’ Calvinist sense of building a new society and the brute geographical fact that the only direction for growing settlements to expand was westward. Involvement in overseas “colonialism” came late in the day – specifically, at the moment when economic depression mixed with national concern that the Great Frontier was closed. Compared to the tribulations of Britain and France, decolonization was gentle. Or was it? The US was never asked to give up its core colonies, out of which the entire country is comprised.

Germany’s primary colonial orientation was eastward. It was not like somebody woke up one morning and said, “We should move east and colonize Slavic lands.” Rather there was a centuries-long progression that colonized the Mark Brandenburg, Pomerania, Silesia, East Prussia, West Prussia, Posen – the state of Prussia was built on land taken from Slavs, who may well have previously taken it from Germanic types. Not to mention German colonization in Saxony (and its dynastic union with Poland), Austria, and in the Baltics via the Northern Crusades and the Hansa League. Not surprisingly, in the areas taken from Slavs, there arose a:

  1. General sense of superiority that became racialized in the twentieth century but for most of its history allowed a Slav to become a German through assimilation;
  2. Frontier mentality most intense in the recently conquered areas, such as is famous from King Frederick II’s correspondenceabout Silesia and West Prussia;
  3. Sense of manifest destiny that Germany’s future lay in the East, as seen in Gustav Freytag’s perennial classic of colonization, Soll und Haben.

Until 1850, more Germans migrated eastward than westward across the oceans. The Industrial Revolution changed all that, and also transformed the concept of the East from a triumphant sense of pure promise to a sense of possibility mixed equally with threat from the Slavs, who were multiplying faster than the Germans. Overall, it is accurate to say that Poles were Germany’s original colonial subjects.

Perhaps this is easier to grasp through an example. Willa Cather wrote her celebratory frontier novel, O Pioneers, in 1913. In it, a family recently settled in Nebraska is having a tough time of it, and considers moving back to St. Louis. Life in their mud hut is hard to describe as anything but miserable. But while going by horse and cart along a dirt road through the wide, overwhelmingly open prairie, the heroine, Alexandra, is overcome by a mystical feeling of mastery, hope, and connectedness to the place. “A pioneer should have an\r\nimagination, should be able to enjoy the idea of things more than the things themselves” (48). Heinrich Himmler had his mystical moment, as recorded by Hanns Johst, when they stopped the car next to a freshly ploughed Polish field and held a clump of dirt in his hands, musing about how it would soon be tilled by German pioneers. Or there was Franz Heinrich Bock (introduced earlier as Alexander Hohenstein), who was town prefect/Amtskommissar in Poddembice in the Warthegau. Despite all the nasty things that happened there, it was the best time of his life. There was the open plain, the tilled fields, and the sense of promise for the future. There was the feeling of being hated by the natives for one’s superior culture. That brings us back to George Orwell, who in “Shooting an Elephant,” reflected that Burma was stimulating because it was the only time in his life he was important enough to be hated by so many people. The East evoked that pioneer spirit so common to colonial frontiers.

Like the United States, Germany also had a brief adventure in overseas colonialism heavily marked by un-clarity of purpose and commitment, at least in relation to the resources the country was willing to commit to the so-called “Nationalities Struggle.” It was as if Germany colonized Poland for themselves, and their overseas possessions for other people: to show the “civilized world” that they deserved their “place in the sun.” When this episode ended following the Great War, it was easy come, easy go when it concerned the colonies themselves. The big conflict was over what it meant for Germany in the eyes of other people. Were Germans especially brutal? Did they deserve to be “stripped” of their colonies by Western Powers who possessed their own Black Books of Colonialism? For the overall colonial lesson of the War was that overseas colonies were useless in the face of the Royal Navy. Germany needed colonies its Army could secure, as they had done during the Great War, and these lay in the East.

American withdrawal from Vietnam had led to a period of questioning and loss of national confidence that required first Reagan and then Desert Storm to lay to rest. This was nothing compared to the Great Questioning that ensued in Germany after losing the Great War. Larger questions, such as concern over capitalist materialism, why the world seemed arrayed against Germany, why the German people at the end lost their will to fight, found their resolution in anti-Semitism. The Slavs – especially the Poles – did not emerge unscathed.

After 150 years of persecution and three decades of Prussia’s “plantation policy,” Poland seized its chance for freedom. With Germany and Russia collapsed in civil disorder, Poles rose up and expelled their colonial masters. Poland’s Independence Day also happened to be Germany’s darkest: November 9. A flood of bitter refugees settled throughout Germany. The opinion became widespread that Poland’s existence was a “gift” of the Great Powers, possible only at Germany’s expense. Poland’s self-expression became Grossmannsucht, and in Germany tended to provoke shame and embarrassment to the point that elementary schoolbooks were rewritten with “lost borders” drawn in bleeding red lines.

None of the above made inevitable the re-conquest of Poland that commenced on September 1, 1939. The foot soldiers of the Great War were now in power, with their own ideas about how to “do it right” without their “hands tied behind their back.” The new foot soldiers comprised the generation that came to political consciousness while their parents were grousing about the War, the Hyperinflation, the Depression, reading history books about the “lost borders,” the “colonial guilt lie,” and so forth. Rather, these factors made the Polish campaign seem less like the war to regain a lost colony that it was. Chief among these was the existence of the Nazi regime, the fact that the Polish campaign was just the beginning of a world war, the Holocaust, and that it was merely a prelude to the greatest war of imperial conquest of all time – Operation Barbarossa.

Nevertheless, the war against Poland and the ensuing occupation is of more than passing significance to Germany’s (colonial) history. For Germany, World War II was fought to build an empire that would eternally provide for the country’s security in a seemingly rapacious, uncertain world symbolized by “the Jews.” That story began on the fault lines of contact and competition between Germans and Poles, where the frontier mentalities and manifest destinies were formed, where the Jews who served as the stereotypical “Jew” came from.

When I first began researching colonialism, I held a rather simple, functionalist view of it as a situation that occurs when groups of people who believe themselves to be superior gain effective control over another place, regardless of whether they call it “colonialism.” Being an expatriate in a foreign land one feels one owns is a fairly singular feeling, whether one is a United Fruit Company representative in Costa Rica, Russian officer in Kazakhstan, an Austrian bureaucrat in the Banat, or a Prussian Beamter in Kujawien. Instead of terminology, one should focus on the effects of being a foreign power holder surrounded by people who probably prefer you were not there.

As I delved into the matter, I came to see that Germany’s ambiguous colonial history is analogous to that of the United States. In the US, one finds that the primary direction of colonization was to the West. It grew out of the New England settlers’ Calvinist sense of building a new society and the brute geographical fact that the only direction for growing settlements to expand was westward. Involvement in overseas “colonialism” came late in the day – specifically, at the moment when economic depression mixed with national concern that the Great Frontier was closed. Compared to the tribulations of Britain and France, decolonization was gentle. Or was it? The US was never asked to give up its core colonies, out of which the entire country is comprised.

Germany’s primary colonial orientation was eastward. It was not like somebody woke up one morning and said, “We should move east and colonize Slavic lands.” Rather there was a centuries-long progression that colonized the Mark Brandenburg, Pomerania, Silesia, East Prussia, West Prussia, Posen – the state of Prussia was built on land taken from Slavs, who may well have previously taken it from Germanic types. Not to mention German colonization in Saxony (and its dynastic union with Poland), Austria, and in the Baltics via the Northern Crusades and the Hansa League. Not surprisingly, in the areas taken from Slavs, there arose a:

  1. General sense of superiority that became racialized in the twentieth century but for most of its history allowed a Slav to become a German through assimilation;
  2. Frontier mentality most intense in the recently conquered areas, such as is famous from King Frederick II’s correspondenceabout Silesia and West Prussia;
  3. Sense of manifest destiny that Germany’s future lay in the East, as seen in Gustav Freytag’s perennial classic of colonization, Soll und Haben.

Until 1850, more Germans migrated eastward than westward across the oceans. The Industrial Revolution changed all that, and also transformed the concept of the East from a triumphant sense of pure promise to a sense of possibility mixed equally with threat from the Slavs, who were multiplying faster than the Germans. Overall, it is accurate to say that Poles were Germany’s original colonial subjects.

Perhaps this is easier to grasp through an example. Willa Cather wrote her celebratory frontier novel, O Pioneers, in 1913. In it, a family recently settled in Nebraska is having a tough time of it, and considers moving back to St. Louis. Life in their mud hut is hard to describe as anything but miserable. But while going by horse and cart along a dirt road through the wide, overwhelmingly open prairie, the heroine, Alexandra, is overcome by a mystical feeling of mastery, hope, and connectedness to the place. “A pioneer should have an imagination, should be able to enjoy the idea of things more than the things themselves” (48). Heinrich Himmler had his mystical moment, as recorded by Hanns Johst, when they stopped the car next to a freshly ploughed Polish field and held a clump of dirt in his hands, musing about how it would soon be tilled by German pioneers. Or there was Franz Heinrich Bock (introduced earlier as Alexander Hohenstein), who was town prefect/Amtskommissar in Poddembice in the Warthegau. Despite all the nasty things that happened there, it was the best time of his life. There was the open plain, the tilled fields, and the sense of promise for the future. There was the feeling of being hated by the natives for one’s superior culture. That brings us back to George Orwell, who in “Shooting an Elephant,” reflected that Burma was stimulating because it was the only time in his life he was important enough to be hated by so many people. The East evoked that pioneer spirit so common to colonial frontiers.

Like the United States, Germany also had a brief adventure in overseas colonialism heavily marked by un-clarity of purpose and commitment, at least in relation to the resources the country was willing to commit to the so-called “Nationalities Struggle.” It was as if Germany colonized Poland for themselves, and their overseas possessions for other people: to show the “civilized world” that they deserved their “place in the sun.” When this episode ended following the Great War, it was easy come, easy go when it concerned the colonies themselves. The big conflict was over what it meant for Germany in the eyes of other people. Were Germans especially brutal? Did they deserve to be “stripped” of their colonies by Western Powers who possessed their own Black Books of Colonialism? For the overall colonial lesson of the War was that overseas colonies were useless in the face of the Royal Navy. Germany needed colonies its Army could secure, as they had done during the Great War, and these lay in the East.

American withdrawal from Vietnam had led to a period of questioning and loss of national confidence that required first Reagan and then Desert Storm to lay to rest. This was nothing compared to the Great Questioning that ensued in Germany after losing the Great War. Larger questions, such as concern over capitalist materialism, why the world seemed arrayed against Germany, why the German people at the end lost their will to fight, found their resolution in anti-Semitism. The Slavs – especially the Poles – did not emerge unscathed.

After 150 years of persecution and three decades of Prussia’s “plantation policy,” Poland seized its chance for freedom. With Germany and Russia collapsed in civil disorder, Poles rose up and expelled their colonial masters. Poland’s Independence Day also happened to be Germany’s darkest: November 9. A flood of bitter refugees settled throughout Germany. The opinion became widespread that Poland’s existence was a “gift” of the Great Powers, possible only at Germany’s expense. Poland’s self-expression became Grossmannsucht, and in Germany tended to provoke shame and embarrassment to the point that elementary schoolbooks were rewritten with “lost borders” drawn in bleeding red lines.

None of the above made inevitable the re-conquest of Poland that commenced on September 1, 1939. The foot soldiers of the Great War were now in power, with their own ideas about how to “do it right” without their “hands tied behind their back.” The new foot soldiers comprised the generation that came to political consciousness while their parents were grousing about the War, the Hyperinflation, the Depression, reading history books about the “lost borders,” the “colonial guilt lie,” and so forth. Rather, these factors made the Polish campaign seem less like the war to regain a lost colony that it was. Chief among these was the existence of the Nazi regime, the fact that the Polish campaign was just the beginning of a world war, the Holocaust, and that it was merely a prelude to the greatest war of imperial conquest of all time – Operation Barbarossa.

Nevertheless, the war against Poland and the ensuing occupation is of more than passing significance to Germany’s (colonial) history. For Germany, World War II was fought to build an empire that would eternally provide for the country’s security in a seemingly rapacious, uncertain world symbolized by “the Jews.” That story began on the fault lines of contact and competition between Germans and Poles, where the frontier mentalities and manifest destinies were formed, where the Jews who served as the stereotypical “Jew” came from.

January 12, 2008 in History