Various pictures come to mind when “Great War” and “East” are mentioned: troops marching through muddy streets lined by thatched huts; troops lying in deep snow-covered trenches somewhere in the Great Plains of Eastern Europe; soldiers on guard on the Carpathian Mountains’ northeastern slopes.[1] These mental scenes have been shaped by wartime propaganda. But they also represent the spatial contrast to other fronts, like the Western, Gallipoli or Italian Fronts. The war in the East was highly mobile, but also had stationary phases, bogged down in heavily fortified trenches or forts (Przemysl 1914/15, etc.) or hindered by natural borders such as the Carpathian Mountains or the Pruth-Sereth Line. Major successful offensives made it possible to move hundreds of miles, as in the Russian advance into Galicia and Bukovina in 1914, the Tarnov-Gorlice Offensive in 1915, the Brusilov Offensive in 1916, and the Eisenbahnvormarsch (Railway Advance) into Ukraine in 1918.[2] Since the turn of the millennium, several groundbreaking works on these events have been published, particularly on the occupations of Galicia/Bukovina, the Oberbefehlshaber Ost (Ober Ost) and Ukraine.[3]

This leads to the delicate question of space and terminology. Before the outbreak of the war, the region in question consisted of Imperial Russia, Imperial Germany and the Habsburg Empire. At least since the Congress of Vienna in 1814/15, when Poland was split between these three regional powers, the Polish question remained one of the most relevant for all national movements in Eastern Europe. In 1916 occupying Central Powers had declared Congress-Poland, the Russian partition of Poland, possible territory for a future independent state, but the final borders were eventually set in small wars after 1918. In contrast, the Ukrainian national movement, focusing on Romanov and Habsburg territories and partly in conflict with the Polish one, had existed since the 19th century. Their Russian comrades in particular intensified efforts for autonomy after the February Revolution in 1917; formal independence was declared in Kiev in January 1918. The territories and independence movements of the Crimea, Belarus, Bessarabia, Russia and Georgia were also relevant. Thus it is important to keep in mind the sensitive national discourses on autonomy and independence, and the position of the occupying states towards them, while dealing with this period.[4]

The second important characteristic of war and occupation in Eastern Europe is that it broke with the accepted chronology of the First World War. Although the war began in the East in August 1914 just as on the other fronts, its end is difficult to pinpoint. Fighting in the Eastern theatre did not end with the Brest-Litovsk armistice in November 1917 or with the collapse of Germany and Austria-Hungary one year later. Combatants and civilians were caught in local unrests, wars of independence and anti-Bolshevik resistance after the October Revolution. The Civil War perpetuated a state of societal lawlessness, which changed the social setting.[5] The fighting continued at least until the Second Peace of Riga in March 1921, and some have argued that it continued until the formation of the USSR in December 1922.

This paper gives an overview of the occupation of Imperial Russian territory in Europe from 1914 until the early 1920s. It begins by examining the early occupation of Russian territory from 1915 until 1917. The following section focuses on the Central Powers’ territorial expansion in Eastern Europe in 1917/18 following the Brest-Litovsk armistice and peace treaties. Finally, the events of November 1918 will be briefly examined.

Early Occupations of Imperial Russian Territory after 1915

Contrary to pre-war expectations,[6] Russian troops managed to stop the German troops along the East Prussian border and even enter German territory. In Austria-Hungary, the Russians occupied Bukovina, Galicia and entered northeastern Hungary in fall 1914. The complete breakdown of the Eastern Front and the collapse of the entire Habsburg Empire could only be avoided with the help of German troops – a doubtful reputation with which the old empire had to cope until the end of the war.[7] After desperate winter fighting with heavy losses, the joint Tarnov-Gorlice campaign entirely changed the situation in May 1915. Within the following six months, the front was pushed more than 300 miles to the east. During the next three years, German territory was never in danger from the east. After this, Austria-Hungary was also largely safe and occupied foreign land in Eastern and South Eastern Europe,[8] aside from the Russian advance in the Brusilov Offensive in summer 1916 and the short lived success of the Kerensky Offensive in 1917.

One result of this drive east was the occupation of huge territories in Western Russia, including Congress-Poland, Lithuania and parts of Courland and western Volhynia. Neither the German nor the Austro-Hungarian military administration had made even rudimentary prewar plans for an occupation administration, since most planners had expected a short war. Therefore, the occupation administrators had no plan to fall back on in managing these huge territories and using newly-accessible resources for their own war economies.[9]

Congress-Poland was divided into the Imperial German General Government Warsaw and the Austro-Hungarian Imperial and Royal Military General Government Lublin. In Warsaw and Lublin, the military administration immediately started with a reconstruction offensive: repairing the damage from the short but heavy fighting and enhancing Polish cultural programs in an attempt to end decades of cultural oppression. Both measures were obviously intended to win the Polish people’s hearts and minds. An additional benefit, one that proved even more important than the cultural project in the short term, was the economic integration of the occupied territory. Polish coal mines, extensive timber stocks and granaries could help the Central Powers overcome the sea blockades in the west and south and infrastructural measures would improve the strategic situation on the Eastern Front.[10]

Contrary to German and Austro-Hungarian foreign policy, the Habsburg military administration was skeptical about further investments in occupied Poland. Their main aim was to exploit available resources. The coal mines in Dombrowa, for example, were able not only to supply all the coal necessary for its troops on the Eastern Front, but also substantial quantities for the Austro-Hungarian railway system.[11] In general, the Habsburg administration focused on the exploitation of agricultural production. But despite all their efforts during the three years of occupation, only a little more than 1 million tons of grain was seized, around two-thirds of which was redirected to the occupation troops and the population of Cisleithania. This compensated only a minor part of war-related losses, making the operation a major failure.[12]

Germany started to recruit workers in order to fully exploit the resources of its occupied territory.[13] In the beginning, workers were motivated to sign up to work in the Reich. But after they arrived, it was nearly impossible to end their contract, return home or change their residence or workplace. Naturally, this did not further recruitment and damaged public opinion towards the occupiers. In the end, no more than 200,000 people signed up to go to Germany. Under pressure from the High Command (Hindenburg-Programm), the German administration adopted a strict system, which had to be stopped in December 1916 due to lack of success and furious protests. In this regard, the territory around Lodz was an exception, recruiting and sending 5,000 workers to Ober Ost. These measures ran contrary to the proclamation of an independent Poland in the Zwei-Kaiser-Manifest of 5 November 1916. But the occupation forces never intended to found an independent Polish state or truly cooperate with a local war-time administration. Nonetheless they needed to calm public opinion, so in late 1916 the administration in Warsaw returned to voluntary recruitment with economic stimuli, which was more effective. But the use of force to recruit workers was never completely stopped.[14]

The military territory of Ober Ost, which consisted of Courland, Lithuania and Bialystok-Grodno, was a special case. Paul von Hindenburg (1847-1934), the first Oberbefehlshaber Ost since November 1914, and his chief of staff and intellectual father of the whole project, Erich von Ludendorff (1865-1937),[15] wanted to create a model of an ideal military state. Thus, the Ober Ost territory was directly under the German High Command’s supervision and measures were implemented much more strictly. Ludendorff wanted to transform the local culture and maintained strict control of the territory with a transport and cultural policy. German soldiers were to settle here after the war and revive the medieval idea of German colonization of the Baltic States. Despite these grand ideas, Ober Ost evolved into a dysfunctional state, characterized by cultural and physical violence against civilians, hunger, forced labor, exploitation, mismanagement, internal military disputes and even insurgencies. An integration of local political authorities was never part of the plan. Only the local, mainly German-speaking gentry were accepted partners.[16]

All of these measures in Ober Ost were designed to build a useful infrastructure for military control and to exploit as many agricultural and forestry resources as possible. The German army was interested in using the local workforce to advance its own projects. Although Ludendorff was promoted to the German High Command, Prince Leopold, Prince of Bavaria (1846-1930) and his chief of staff, Max Hoffmann (1869-1927), continued his policy. While the recruitment of civilians in occupied territory was allowed, the German administration ignored the minimal standards set by the Hague Convention. One indirect result of this forced labor administration was that the local farmers were absent from their fields for too long, which together with the seizure of food, led to widespread hunger. In late 1916, the administration stepped up the forced recruitment of workers, which escalated in some wild roundups. In late 1917 – at the same time as the proclamation of the Lithuanian Council – the forced labor administration was officially dissolved. But different forms of labor battalions and recruitments remained until the end of 1918.[17]

The gradual collapse of Russia since February 1917 brought additional land under German control. By the time of the Brest-Litovsk negotiations, the Austro-Hungarian territory had been completely liberated and the demarcation line had been moved an additional fifty miles eastwards.

A Brest-Litovsk Order?

Throughout December 1917, the delegations of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, the Ottoman Empire and Bolshevik Russia arrived in snow-covered Brest-Litovsk. At the same time, Finland declared independence on 6 December 1917, Crimea followed on 13 December 1917, Ukraine on 22 January 1918, Lithuania on 16 February 1918, Estonia on 24 February 1918, Belarus on 25 March 1918 and Georgia on 26 May 1918.[18] Germany, in particular, tried to use these independence movements to put pressure on the Bolsheviks. While the hunger strikes that first swept across Austria-Hungary in January 1918 and later Germany gave Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) hope that world revolution would soon spread westwards, the situation continued to worsen for the Bolsheviks. In Brest-Litovsk, a delegation of the Ukrainian Centralna Rada demanded that they be accepted as an independent participant of the negotiations. Lenin wanted to solve the problem by military force and sent Bolshevik troops from Russia and Kharkov to Kiev. The situation was even less clear at the beginning of February 1918, because nobody knew who was in power in Kiev. After the signing of a separate treaty between the Central Powers and the delegates from the Centralna Rada on 9 February 1918, the Bolsheviks broke off negotiations. The Rada now asked their new allies for help fighting the Red Guards; German troops started their advance on 18 February 1918. Even, the Oberbefehlshaber Ost had already started its expansion into the northeastern Baltic States and towards Minsk a few days earlier.

In the next two months, German and Austro-Hungarian forces seized the entire Ukraine. They also moved to the Crimea and Rostov-on-Don, and Austro-Hungarian troops occupied the northern part of Bessarabia (which they handed over to Romania in May 1918). Although the Central Powers restored the Centralna Rada in Kiev, it was not in power for very long: at the end of April 1918, the growing, and, in some cases, chaotic assembly had been replaced by the one-man show, Hetman Pavlo Skoropadskyi (1873-1945). As a Czarist general, he seemed to Berlin to be the right person to restore order and thus guarantee the Ukrainian grain promised in Brest-Litovsk. Adopting a cooperative approach, the Central Powers were quite successful throughout the summer of 1918 in pacifying the anti-occupation and anti-Skoropadskyi uprisings and social unrests. It appeared that Germany was attempting to make changes on the ground and install a new order – a Brest-Litovsk order?

The occupations in Eastern Europe in spring 1918 were not enough for Ludendorff. Georgia, striving for independence, was looking for support. He saw his chance and sent 13,000 troops to the Caucasus in summer 1918. In the long run, he planned an alliance between Germany and the Trans-Caucasus provinces as a counterweight to the “Slavic block” dominated by the Russians. This plan was not only a strategic move to encircle Russia, but also to gain access to the economically important regions of Central Asia.[19]

There was a change of strategy in cooperation with the local political elites in this second wave of expansion. The Central Powers, especially Germany, tried to build up a system of trustworthy partners, who would bring parts of the local society behind the new political system. In this manner, they supported the “Ukrainisation” policy of Hetman Skoropadskyj as well as the self-administration of Cossack society in Southwestern Russia and the Caucasus.

A Never-ending Story of War and Occupation?

But even this success in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus could not stop the breakdown of the Central Powers. Austria-Hungary imploded in October 1918, and Germany had to accept an armistice on 11 November 1918. But Article 12 of the Armistice of Compiégne obliged the Germans to keep their occupation troops in the East. The Entente needed someone to stop the Bolshevik guards from spreading westwards in this power vacuum while they started their own operations in the Caucasus and Ukraine to support anti-Bolshevik forces. In December 1918, a French-Greek expedition corps landed in Odessa, but had to withdraw in March 1919. Furthermore, the Entente supported Denikin in South Russia, and tried to secure their access to Russia and the goods stored there by interventions in Archangelsk and Murmansk. In the end, these operations were of limited success, but showed that the period of occupations was not over.[20]

The Russian Bolsheviks upheld their claim to Rossijskoj territory. This was not only founded upon ideological considerations concerning world revolution and overcoming the “bourgeois concept” of nation, but it was also based on strategic considerations: with the independence of Finland, Belarus and the Baltic States, Soviet Russia was in danger of losing its maritime and land access to the West. Furthermore Ukraine’s independence meant the loss of important industrial and agrarian capacities, the strategically important Crimea and with it the domination of the Black Sea.

The new states, which were looking for independence, now competed for territory that had been multiethnic, multilingual and multireligious for centuries. Especially in the densely populated cities, it was impossible to find a majority for a specific national entity, i.e. Czernowitz, Odessa, Lviv, Vilnius, etc.[21] During the war the situation had been further confused by refugees, marauding soldiers, and deportations before retreat. Jews, Germans, Tartars, Armenians, Greeks and other smaller minorities increasingly found themselves trapped between the more and more radicalizing mono-national concepts.[22]

The now emerging states in Eastern Europe were Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Bessarabia, and Crimea. German occupiers took advantage of the Baltic States’ national aspirations, especially to solidify the discontent with the old Russian order. Even after November 1918, the German Freikorps fought a bloody war side by side with the armies of the new Baltic nations against the Bolsheviks until the end of 1919. But the Freikorps were also fighting against the loss of their claim to land in the East and against the inevitable loss of the war. However, they eventually lost support on account of numerous abuses against the local population and had to retreat in late 1919.[23]

Another war broke out over Galicia in the final days of the Habsburg Empire. Both Ukrainians and Poles laid claim to it. On 1 November 1918, Ukrainian leaders proclaimed the West Ukrainian People’s Republic from Lviv. They demanded East Galicia, northern Bukovina and Carpathian Rus as their territory. Of course, Poland would not give up its claim to East Galicia, so Polish forces drove the Ukrainian-Galician forces out of the country. The Entente found this situation highly unsatisfactory, because they wanted to solve all territorial questions at the conference table in Paris. But in the end they could do nothing more than accept the Polish claim to Western Galicia, which was underpinned by armed force. The question of Eastern Galicia was postponed, but in March 1923 the whole territory was finally accepted as belonging to Warsaw. In the meantime, Romania got the entire Bukovina.[24]

The Entente needed Poland, and could not risk losing this important ally in the containment of the “Bolshevik danger” posed by the new regime in Moscow. And even the Ukrainian state could not support fellow Ukrainians in East Galicia as it may have wanted, because Kiev needed help in its fight against Soviet troops from the Northeast. Symon Petliura (1879-1926) desperately tried to fight the Bolsheviks as well as both Anton Denikin’s (1872-1947) troops and the Romanians after the Germans handed power over to the Directorate in late 1918. After initial success against Denikin and the Entente forces, he had to retreat to Poland in December 1919 because of the Soviet advance into Central Ukraine. There he accepted the Polish demand for Eastern Galicia in exchange for help in overthrowing the Bolsheviks. In a joint operation, Polish troops and the remaining Petliura forces moved eastwards and occupied wide parts of Belarus and Western Ukraine, even reconquering Kiev on 7 May 1920.

But this success was short-lived: Bolshevik troops began a counteroffensive and pushed the Polish troops back. By August 1920 the Bolsheviks were in control of most of Eastern Poland, and from their position at the Vistula threatened Warsaw, Chelm, Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk. Diplomats in Paris and London were in panic. The Bavarian Soviet Republic of April/May 1919 and the Hungarian Soviet Republic of Béla Kun (1886-1938), which lasted from March until August 1919, were still fresh in their mind. Poland asked France and Britain for help, who sent war materials, but refused to send troops. In a last ditch effort, the Polish forces managed to stop the Red Army at the gates of Warsaw on 16 August 1920. The Soviets now dissolved in panic and were chased by Polish troops, until they stood safely once again deep in Soviet territory. In October 1920, both armies were exhausted, and reconquering Ukrainian territory was unthinkable. Thus, Petliura moved with his remaining followers to Tarnov to head a short-lived government in exile.[25]

In the meantime, the Soviets pushed ahead to secure their power within Ukraine. In January 1920, the All-Ukrainian Revolutionary Committee decided that all Soviet Russian decrees were also valid in Ukraine. However, the growing pressure on peasants to deliver their grain to the local food commissions and the war against Kulaks provoked a new, broad uprising. In fall 1920, wide parts of Ukraine were no longer under the Soviet regime’s control. The last remaining troops of the White Army, now led by Pyotr N. Wrangel (1878-1928), were operating in the Crimea, and even Nestor Makhno (1889-1934) now fought once again against the Red Guards. The peasant uprisings were suppressed thanks both to troops returning from the Polish-Soviet war and other harsh measures, but the situation remained tense. In late 1920, Wrangel’s and Makhno’s remaining forces were finally defeated. Throughout 1921 the last anarchist sympathizers and remaining bands were cleansed without remorse by Mikhail Frunze’s (1885-1925) special forces.[26] Finally, Poland and Soviet Russia agreed on an armistice, which, after long negotiations, led to the Second Peace of Riga signed on 18 March 1921.[27] This finally brought the fighting in Eastern Europe to an end. And yet, there was still no peace.

All of these military operations and back-and-forth troop movements resulted in phases of territorial control by different armies, regardless of whether they fought under a national or the Red flag. Although the Bolshevik troops did not follow a clear national concept, the control of territory played a major role in Soviet-Russian foreign policy during the Civil War/World Revolution through spatial expansion. For peasants in Central and Eastern Europe who had been harmed by the First World War, the looting, exploitation of their resources and manpower, forced recruitment, pogroms, raping and killing did not end with November 1918. Thus it should come as no surprise that both civilians and soldiers in Eastern Europe, referred to the period from 1914 until the early 1920s as the never-ending apocalypse.


One of the new tasks that the armies in the First World War had to face was the administration of occupied land. None of the belligerent countries had prepared for this before the war, because all of the general staff plans hoped for an intense, but short war, which would result in the integration of land. This is why occupation policy not only meant military administration and economic exploitation, but also a cultural project of transforming local culture. The Russians saw Galicia as their territory in fall 1914, and thus started with its integration into the empire. A similar situation existed for the land of the Ober Ost, which was considered German on account of Ostkolonisation and Hanse. On the other end of the spectrum there was the occupation of Ukraine, Bessarabia, Crimea, Georgia, and Volhynia, seen as a strategic tool to weaken Russia, whether under Czarist or Bolshevik rule, and to be economically exploitated. It was not clear until the postwar period to whom these lands should belong, but every power had its own ideas of political or economic domination. Occupied Poland found itself between these two extremes: Russia as well as Germany and Austria-Hungary knew they had to promise the Poles some kind of future autonomy to guarantee their support throughout the war, but the extent to which these promises would become a reality after the war was another question. Thus, the occupiers tried to use a cultural policy to win Polish hearts and minds. This was contradicted, however, by foreign political moves, the occupation administration, and the economic exploitation of resources. While some examples in Poland and Ukraine seemed to show concessions towards the occupied, through the founding of schools and universities, infrastructural measures, the support of local political administrations, etc., other examples reveal a colonial point of view expressed by brutality and contempt towards the local population with forced labor, ruthless fighting of social unrests and uprisings, seizure of food, etc.

While at first glance the Central Powers seemed to have won the war in Eastern Europe in 1917/18 with the collapse of Russia and Romania and the occupation of huge territories, a closer look reveals the ensuing problems: hundreds of thousands of troops were needed to secure this fragile peace, not even a fraction of the expected resources could be squeezed out of the occupied lands, and they had to fight uprisings against their presence. So the question must be asked: Was the “success” of the Central Powers in Eastern Europe at the end of World War One more of a strategic overstretch than a true advantage?

Wolfram Dornik, LBI for Research on the Consequences of War

Section Editors: Boris Kolonit͡skiĭ; Nikolaus Katzer