December 1916


By Gustavo Corni, Wojciech Łysek, Helena Trnkova

The Great War profoundly changed the everyday life of society, as well as its institutions. The enlisted men and the areas of the fighting were the hardest hit. However, not even the civilians and the rear guard were spared. Gradually, the war impacted, in a somewhat direct way, all aspects of civic life and brought about enduring transformations.


Military occupation and relations between occupiers and occupied

by Gustavo Corni

The main protagonists in World War I, as obviously in all wars, were the combatants. Only from World War II onwards did the incidence of non-fighting civilians play an increasingly important role, to the extent that the majority of victims between 1939 and 1945 were counted amongst civilians. However, large numbers of civilians also were deeply involved in the 1914-1918 war. This was due primarily to the so-called “home fronts” made up of the civilians implicated in the economy of war and involved in mobilising propaganda. The inhabitants of the occupied territories however were more directly and painfully involved in the conflict.

Starting with the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, occupation took on the form of a “General Governorate”. This was a structure under military command, which also comprised civilian bureaucratic staff from the occupying country and which functioned with the contribution of local personnel. From the military point of view, occupation has two main purposes: firstly to guarantee peace and law and order in the areas located behind the front, so as not to hinder military operations, through forms of espionage or franc tireurs (“free shooters”). These were armed bands made up of civilians and dispersed soldiers that had previously been in operation during the Franco-Prussian war and who had turned into a sort of nightmare for the Germans. The Austro-Hungarian Army was likewise worried during the brutal invasion of Serbia in 1914 when faced with the threat of the Komitadji. The second objective of military occupation is to guarantee, using the most appropriate measures, the normal functioning of economic, manufacturing and business activities, so as to be able to provide the troops on the front with supplies and maintain acceptable living standards for civilians. This was supposed to ensure that maintaining troops and civilians in occupied territory would weigh as little as possible on the economy of the mother country. This second objective in particular had a significant impact during the war, due to the size of the armies. National economies were not able to maintain millions of soldiers and officers far away from their homeland.

In order to accomplish these objectives, the occupying powers enacted a series of provisions, orders and prohibitions to regulate relations with the occupied populace. In many cases they took the trouble to send out officers and officials with suitable experience and knowledge of the local language. Maintaining order was crucial for the occupying forces, but also for those being occupied, as it created the conditions for business to continue as usual.

This model of occupation is affected, in the individual situations that come up during the course of the conflict, by various factors: the potential economic value, whether high or low, of an occupied territory was able to influence the way in which the occupation actually developed, just like the availability, or lack thereof, of a (political, administrative, religious) ruling class willing, for a wide variety of reasons, to collaborate with the occupier by taking over the management of part of everyday business. The time factor was also discriminatory: occupations that took place during the first stage of the war, those in Belgium and north-east France, had more time to develop and become structured. In many cases, this restructuring was in the form of mitigating repression in the search for less invasive methods. In territories occupied during the final phase of the conflict (Friuli and eastern Veneto, Ukraine) the chances for implementing an articulated policy were limited, giving way to the urgency to provide the occupying troops or mother country with supplies. In general a tendency for the military apparatus to make room for civil structures can be identified. In any case, the political and military objectives of the occupying power prevailed. The variable of any eventual war objectives must also be taken into account: not in all cases did the occupying power have a clear-cut plan on how to exploit the occupied territory. Amongst these, both in the case of Ober-Ost and in the Balkan territories occupied by Austria-Hungary, there emerges a tendency to encourage a process of modernisation of a territory considered backward: aspects of modernity were introduced into education, health care, social care and economic fields by the occupying country. A significant case is that of Albania, considered a “friendly” country that the Austro-Hungarian occupying authorities felt it was their responsibility to modernise. Lastly, it made a difference whether the territory was occupied by a single Central Empire power or whether there were two, or even three, occupying powers, as in the case of Rumania. Conflicts of jurisdiction were in this case everyday issues, complicating the likelihood of producing effective forms of occupation. Neither must the intermingling between occupation policies and internal policy in the Central Empires be forgotten. The deterioration in the way the French and Belgian populations were treated after 1917 is also linked to the need to justify cuts in supplies to the inhabitants of the Central Empires: how could it be justified that a family in Brussels or in Lille received more rations than in Berlin or Vienna?

In general, it can be said that the ambition of the occupation apparatuses was to cover all aspects of collective life: from the postal service, railways, farming production and foreign commerce to the police, cultural activities and the press, whilst striving to keep pre-existing state apparatuses in operation. This ambition however had to reckon with compelling factors: time, the priorities dictated by the mother country’s politics (just think of the divergent intentions pursued by the Germans and Austro-Hungarians with regard to the reconstitution of a Polish state), the need to supply troops on occupied territory with provisions, the urgent needs of war. The forms of self-government introduced into occupied territories, the intention of which was to spare men and resources and consolidate some sort of trust in the occupier could only be partially developed, either because the pre-existing ruling class had for the most part fled (as was the case in Friuli and eastern Veneto), or because it was not easy to form a new ruling class in a short time (like in Albania), or – lastly – because self-government clashed with the priority of controlling the occupied territory, as shown by the case of Belgium. The military authorities were faced with a dilemma: if the occupying power reacted too tolerantly, it undermined the peace of mind, order and its own status of supremacy; if on the other hand it acted in too restrictive a manner, the confidence and benevolence of the populace it was attempting to gain were either soon lost or could not be gained in the first place. In occupation policies, therefore, there was a wide gap between expectations and what was actually accomplished. Often force prevailed. To maintain their “own” law and order, occupiers did not hesitate to intervene in a severe manner through arresting hostages, inflicting collective punishment, deportations and death sentences.

Maintaining law and order was invaluable, both for the occupiers and the occupied. To order to achieve this, the occupying authorities were in many cases willing to perpetrate any type of violence. Internal law and order constituted the basis for the normal functioning of business activities, especially farming. It may be remembered that, with the exception of occupied Belgium and France, the territories under occupation were characterised by a predominantly rural economy. But the distribution of food resources represented a point of severe friction: how much food had to be subtracted from the civilian population to feed the large armies deployed on the borders of the occupied territory? What constituted “minimum” provisions that would ensure that the civilian population would not rebel? How was it necessary to act towards the peasant population: with force, persuasion, by offering incentives? In some cases, from Ober Ost to the Governorate of Serbia, the occupying authorities proposed (though with different objectives) to introduce advanced forms of agriculture. In the first case, to substantiate the superiority of Germanic Kultur; in Serbia it was thought that a sort of “State socialism” ahead of its time would enable productivity to be increased, to the benefit of both parties. The longer the war went on, the more food conditions deteriorated in the Central Empires. As a result, the occupying authorities became increasingly harsh in the way they handled the requisition of foodstuffs and other raw materials. This went as far as the plundering policies implemented (with disastrous results) in the Ukraine after the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty.

Most of the sources on which historiography has worked come from the occupiers’ side. Therefore the question of how populations in occupied territories behave is also interpreted from their point of view.  Was there any form of resistance, or vice versa, of collaboration? But is it right to use these conceptual frameworks as a means of understanding the relations between the occupiers and the occupied, projecting into the past specific categories of the war that was to follow? Let’s take the case of the Balkans, occupied by Austria-Hungary. Sources attest to the presence of armed bands, a cause for concern for the occupiers. Reports classified these bands as bandits, a traditional form of incivility of those peoples, which in some cases were shrouded in a “political cloak”. The historian today finds it difficult to go beyond these interpretations, due to the lack of alternative sources. If this were true, the “cloak” had in any case the characteristics of a national claim; just think of the flamingants, or occupied Poland. Some state that the attitude of a small proportion of the population in the occupied western territories, that supported or were part of information networks, are to be considered as members of the resistance. More common was moral resistance towards the occupier – referred to as the “invader” – in France and Belgium, at least initially when there was a strong conviction that the occupation would have been brief. The decline in morale became more severe in 1916 and continued to worsen until the summer of 1917, before sentiments of determination and confidence in victory resurfaced.  On the contrary, at the end of the war, trials were brought against alleged collaborators. However, on the one hand, definitions of the defendants’ behaviour (“inciviques”, mauvais conduite) focussed on moral and patriotic aspects, underlining the non-ideological way in which the subject was dealt with by contemporaries. On the other hand, this stage of trials was short-lived, giving way to long-lasting oblivion. In general, it can be stated that forms of resistance or collaboration of a political nature were rare; attempts by the civilian population to withstand a critical condition prevailed.

To conclude, more recent historiography has highlighted how the occupation policies during the First World War cannot be considered black and white: on the one side the victims (the occupied) and on the other their oppressors (the occupiers); on the contrary there were complex stages of conflict and different subjects searched for ways to live together, undoubtedly each with different capabilities to impose their own interests yet – within their respective limits – committed to this. Two models have been put forward in the more recent, fruitful, season of studies: on the one hand World War I is interpreted as a “total war” and essential elements of this characteristic are identified precisely in the military occupations; on the other, continuity with the occupation policies pursued by Nazi Germany in the Second World War is emphasised. The exceptions that emerge from these studies, however, are such and so great in number as to weaken the generalising value that the models have. The 1914-1918 military occupations seem to have looked back to nineteenth-century models for controlling militarily delicate areas, as well as having envisaged horizons of experience for what was to happen – on a far greater scale and much more radically – twenty-five years on, in the total war waged by Germany, Italy and their enemies.


Civilians in Congress Poland

by Wojciech Łysek

In 1914 most of the Kingdom was occupied by the Central Powers’ armies. The occupied territory was divided into two zones: the German and the Austro-Hungarian. The line of demarcation was established in autumn 1915. Two thirds of the Kingdom fell under the German occupation, including industry and mines of Coal Fields of Dąbrowa (Polish: Zagłębie Dąbrowskie). The Austrians established “The Military Governorate-General of Lublin”, strictly subordinated to the army’s command. The Germans in turn set a separate governorate-general in Warsaw, under the authority and supervision of general Hans von Beseler, subordinated to Chancellery of German Reich. Suwałki Governorate and a part of the Podlasie region came under “the stages’ command of the General Command of the eastern armies” (Oberost).  In the summer of 1915, despite the population of eastern regions of the country had an especially bad remembrance of the Tsarist regime, population of the Congress Kingdom of Poland welcomed the soldiers of the Central Powers entering the city with mixed feelings.

According to Central Polish Relief Committee (CAP) at Vevey established by Ignacy Paderewski and Henryk Sienkiewicz, only in February of 1915 war operations in the Kingdom affected 10 million people, covering 200 cities and more than nine thousand hamlets. About five thousand villages were razed to the ground. The Polish society bore heavy losses: more than one million of horses and two million of cattle were lost. The extent of damage increased during the summer offensive of 1915 when the retreating Russians were setting buildings on fire. Moreover, the retreating soldiers devastated railways and industry by taking factory instruments and rolling stock to Russia.

The division of the Kingdom into three administrative districts hindered freedom of movement and raised concerns among citizens, particularly given that the occupants had abolished citizens’ committees present in the Congress Kingdom. Together with Central Citizens’ Committee in Warsaw, the other committees provided order during the transitional period. They organized work of vigilant groups and managed civic courts and courts of peace, identified nowadays as seedbeds for the Polish statehood.

After 1915 the Kingdom organized municipal councils, magistrates and diets. First officials of local governments were appointed by the occupants. Management boards of “powiats” (districts), as well as judiciary, were taken over by the Germans. The Austrians, on the other hand, delegated Poles from Galicia to work. The German language dominated the administration and judiciary, with Polish being accepted in municipal courts of peace and local governments.

Press was subject to censorship and freedom of assembly was reduced. Education, however, was given more independence. The Section of Enlightenment took over state Russian schools and endeavoured to polonize higher education institutions of Warsaw, i.e. universities and technical universities. The Germans showed amicability and, after few months, granted the consent to polonize the education. Soon, almost all education institutions were dominated by staff from Galicia and was of Polish nature. It was only the universities’ administration that used the German language.

The opening of both university and technical university in Warsaw was on October 15, 1915. Such a move of the German occupants was to present themselves as amiable towards the oppressed nations and caring for promotion and dissemination of culture and science. The Germans were also driven by the desire to prevent the Polish youth from participating in political activities.

The relations between the Polish society and the German occupant remained bad nevertheless, as a result of failed attempts to use the Poles as cheap labour. First, the Germans aimed at obtaining access to seasonal workers, recruiting the unemployed. In the wake of the failure of this initiative, on the 4th October 1916, Beseler issued an ordinance on counteraction to “work aversion” among the Poles. This document even worsened the Polish-German relations and, in practice, meant taking the workers into captivity and sending them to forced labour in Reich. After the Act of 5th November of 1916, the German authorities in Warsaw finally refrained from the enforced recruitment of citizens. The practise, however, was not abandoned in provincial areas.

In September of 1916, the German administration commenced destruction of competitive Polish industries through compulsory buy-out or export of machinery and requisitioning of raw materials and stores. As a consequence, coal extraction decreased  from 6.8 to 2.8 mln tonnes in 1915. Steelworks mostly ceased production. Textile factories lost, among others: 25 thousand tonnes of textile raw materials or 14 thousand tonnes of ready textiles. The production in distilleries, breweries and sugar factories was also reduced. From 4391 industrial companies of the Kingdom, as many as 1898 were immobilized in 1916. An orthodox church located in the Saski Square also suffered losses, as its copper roof was dissembled, due to the war-time demand for this metal.

Theft and robbery did not spare Polish agriculture. For over three years, the Kingdom had 12.3 milion quintals of grains and 5.5 million quintals of potatoes confiscated. In the result, supply difficulties occurred in the occupied areas. In June of 1916, all transports of potatoes to Warsaw were organized at night, due to a well-founded fear of plundering by a mob of hungry city inhabitants. Weekly food-rations per a person were very low and included: 2 eggs, 0.01 kg of meat and 2.5 g of butter.

Economic difficulties of the Kingdom were accompanied by financial and credit chaos. The countryside did not trust new currencies and accumulated roubles. Some magistrates saved themselves by issuing  local currencies. The Governorate-General of Warsaw introduced a new currency in 1917 - Polish Mark. A new institution was appointed to issue money - Polska Krajowa Kasa Pożyczkowa (PKKP; Eng. Polish National Loan Union).

By means of manipulative fiscal measures, the occupants were practically robbing the Polish society. As a result, the prices of essential commodities were constantly growing. The supplies in municipal areas was worsening. A considerable part of working-class families were reliant on welfare and “cheap beaneries”. The presence of speculators seemed especially offensive against a widespread poverty.

On the other hand, the Germans launched population registration offices, as well as offices issuing passports and entry passes facilitating movement at specific sites. The rule of law was introduced. The German occupant allowed for the activity of Polish cultural, educational and economic associations, and thereby tried to endear the Poles. Beseler, for instance, allowed for the festive celebration of the anniversary of The Constitution of 3 May 1791 in Warsaw. The real breakthrough came with the Act of 5th November of 1916. The legal name of the Kingdom was then changed from Okkupationsgebiet to Verwaltungsgebiet Polen. In practice, this meant that from then on the inhabitants were considered  “citizens of the Kingdom of Poland”, an not “Russian subjects”.


French civilian population during the Great War

By Helena Trnkova

The war affected the lives of civilians in many different ways. Recently, the social history of the war has brought new issues to light. In private life, these include the redefinition of the role of women in societies at war and relations between the sexes in general. In public life, extraordinary government measures and cultural mobilization, as well as the reorganization of production and the world of work, along with the emergence of new needs arising from the prolonged state of war, all represent new points of interest. The trials of everyday life, with the various shortages, as well as the development of certain practices, such as correspondence and private writing, without forgetting the collective mourning linked to mass death, complete the picture.

The first change concerns the political sphere. From the early days of the conflict, under the aegis of the "Sacred Union" (union sacrée), democratic practices regressed to the benefit of a state of emergency. In France, the proclamation of the state of emergency gave broad policing and judicial powers to the military. The establishment of press censorship and controlled mail restricted freedom of expression. The speeches of the elites propagated by newspapers, the objects of propaganda and cultural production ranging from folk songs to the movies, extending to games for children and school exercises, created a general atmosphere in which any attitude other than a patriotic one became difficult to hold. Through these voluntary "organization of enthusiasm" practices, the war permeated the entire social discourse.

With the prolongation of hostilities, it became crucial to construct new long-term sustainable political, economic and social balances. In economic terms, after the initial collapse, activity was reorganized around two imperatives: producing to supply the army and distributing the now scarce resources as evenly as possible. The war economies gave rise to a staggering increase in public spending, as they recognized the primacy of producing materials and commodities for the military confrontation. Civilians were subjected to a new tax: an income tax was passed in July 1914. Through successive campaigns, patriotic war loans, another high-profile measure directed at involving the civilian population, became a real symbol of the nation.

The prolonged state of war led to a complete reorganization of the productive system. Civilian industries were converted into plants designed for war production. Faced with the new demand production increased, generating important benefits for the larger industrial groups (Schneider, Hotchkiss). The production geography changed: it now became concentrated in large urban centres, which saw an influx of workers coming from everywhere. In fact, general mobilization disrupted the traditional social composition of the working class. Attempts to overcome the labour shortage were made using special military detachments, and also with women, children, foreigners, colonials and prisoners of war. This social reorganization resulted in professional deskilling. The balance of power between workers and employers became unbalanced, permitting a more rapid adoption of new production methods (Taylorism, line work) aimed at intensifying work rhythms. Despite a more conciliatory attitude towards the demands of the working world, in order to avoid further disputes, ancient social achievements such as the right to strike and mobility became subject to limitations. Conversely, the pace of work experienced acceleration and intensified control, causing work to become militarized.

Despite the progress made in international law relating to war, civilians were no longer just collateral victims of military operations. While the morale of the home front affected the spirit of the soldiers at the front, civilians indeed became real targets, whether through the economic blockade that drastically reduced food rations or the bombing that hit industrial sites.

The hardships of everyday life multiplied. Civilians had to adapt to the deterioration in the quality of certain foodstuffs and the absence of others. The shortages of coal, tobacco, matches, sugar and soap, or lack of waste collection, were clear indicators of the abnormality of the situation. Prices skyrocketed due to inflation and the black market. Finding food became the first rule of survival. Moreover, new growing surfaces reshaped urban landscapes. The rural world was severely affected by requisitions and the departure of the men. In France, more than half of the fighters came from the countryside. Indeed, the women had to assume all the farming responsibilities: negotiating sales and purchases, supervising labour, management and tax issues, activities which had just a short time earlier been reserved exclusively for their husbands.

While certain extraordinary practices would disappear at the end of hostilities, others would have long-term repercussions. The transitional phase of the demobilization of the men and the demilitarization of public activities thus represents a period just as crucial as the war itself.