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East of the west

The Impossible Border brings an important period in German history out of the shadow of the Nazi era, writes Klaus Neumann

Klaus Neumann 28 January 2011 2853 words

1908 postcard showing the Russian–German border at Laugallen (now Laugaliai in Lithuania).

The Impossible Border: Germany and the East, 1914–1922
By Annemarie H. Sammartino | Cornell University Press | $56.95


IT IS tempting to think of the past only as a precursor to the present. We are fond of declaring that it ought to teach us how to master the present and make a better future, but we too often assume that the present can teach us how to interpret the past. Our sense of having become what we are provides us with the blinkers that prevent us from taking note of what was.

Not only are we fond of reading what was through the prism of what is. We also tend to favour accounts of the past that focus on selected episodes and their prehistories. So the reign of Louis XV becomes a mere prelude to the French Revolution. Or the history of the Balkans in the early twentieth century simply provides the backdrop to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 – which in itself would be of little interest had it not triggered the outbreak of the first world war a month later.

There are perhaps no episodes that throw a longer and deeper shadow over earlier pasts than the Holocaust. Histories of Germany during the Weimar Republic (1918–33), in particular, are meant to identify proto-fascist sentiments and the seeds of genocidal ideologies, and only a brave historian writes about the 1920s without aiming first and foremost to explain the 1930s and early 1940s.

Annemarie Sammartino’s The Impossible Border: Germany and the East, 1914–1922 provides a glimpse of a German past that has long been overshadowed by what came after it. The border she writes about is the precarious and shifting demarcation between Germany and its eastern neighbours during, and in the immediate aftermath of, the first world war.

During that war, German forces conquered large swathes of the tsarist empire. Under the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, signed on 3 March 1918, the successor to that empire, the Russian Soviet Republic, was forced to relinquish claims to most of the Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic countries, all of which Germany expected to become formally independent but economically and politically subservient to the Reich. The expansionist urge underlying the German negotiating position was informed by fantasies of a German colonisation of the East, which retained much of their appeal after the end of the war. But rather than expanding eastward, German territory contracted when its border was moved westward as a result of the Treaty of Versailles.

Ideas about an East that could be brought under German influence, and settled, was shared across the political spectrum. Between 1919 and 1920, Ansiedlung Ost – an organisation with around 30,000 members, most of them committed socialists or communists – promoted mass emigration to Soviet Russia. Prospective settlers from the left were drawn to the East because they envisioned an empty space that was ready to be settled by German migrants. Their ideas about a primeval East that could be cultivated by industrious Germans were shared by members of the far right. In the immediate aftermath of the war, the latter dreamt of, and fought for, a new, unencumbered Germany in the Baltics, a bridgehead from which to colonise the East and defeat Bolshevism.

Fewer than a couple of hundred settlers actually left for Soviet Russia through Ansiedlung Ost. Most of them quickly became disillusioned and had returned to Germany by the end of 1920. Freikorps, German paramilitary units led by men who belonged to the far right, fought Bolshevists and Latvian and Estonian nationalists in the Baltics from early 1919; by the end of the year their defeat had spelt the end of plans to establish German outposts in the Baltics. But the dreams of a primitive East awaiting German settlers – dreams shared by many who had no intention of themselves becoming settlers – did not die so easily.

In the immediate postwar years, the exact location of Germany’s eastern border was not always self-evident. For those who wanted to emigrate to the Baltics or to Russia, Germany’s state border meant little anyway. Members of the Freikorps did not think it contradictory to take out Latvian citizenship in order to establish German colonies in the Baltics. Members of Ansiedlung Ost were similarly blasé about visa requirements and issues of citizenship. They may have been attracted by the success of the Russian Revolution, but they seemed almost surprised to find that Soviet Russia was inhabited by Russians rather than being some kind of virgin territory awaiting the German settler.

“In Germany and elsewhere, the postulated unity of nation, state, and territory could function only by overlooking its very impossibility,” Sammartino observes. In the 1920s, the German nation was defined ethnically. The citizenship law of 1913 had established the priority of jus sanguinis, a right based on ethnicity, over jus soli, a right based on residency. The law made it comparatively easy for somebody with German ancestry who resided outside Germany to claim German citizenship.

The German idea that the East was a space that could be settled was also the result of a long history of German settlements in Russia and the Baltics. In the aftermath of the first world war, many of those Auslandsdeutsche (Germans living abroad) migrated to Germany, a country they hardly knew and whose language they sometimes did not speak. They were joined by Germans from West Prussia and Posen who had become Auslandsdeutsche as a result of the Treaty of Versailles, and by residents of former German territory who could claim rights on account of their citizenship though not on account of their (ethnically defined) nationality. Although postwar Germany could ill afford to accommodate large numbers of forced migrants, Auslandsdeutsche were understood to be part of the nation; any moves to keep them out would have been politically indefensible. For them, as much as for prospective emigrants, Germany’s eastern border amounted to little more than an arbitrary line on a map.

During and in the wake of the first world war, millions of refugees were on the move in Europe and Asia Minor. The extent of forced migration was unprecedented, fuelled by shifts in established borders, the creation of new borders and a series of political upheavals, particularly in eastern and southeastern Europe. Germany was faced with prospective migrants who were arguably part of the nation, but not part of the state; citizens who belonged to the state but, as they were of Polish extraction, not to the nation; those who before Versailles had clearly been members of both; and refugees (including Russians and eastern European Jews) who did not belong to either the German nation or the German state but nevertheless aspired to live in German territory. For the German authorities, it was often difficult to distinguish between those who could claim a right to belong, and those who couldn’t. Besides, Germany – or rather, Prussia, the easternmost German state – was neither in a position nor entirely willing to guard its long eastern frontier effectively.

Germany’s inability to control its borders – to “decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come,” as John Howard so famously put it in 2001 – became one of the defining features of the Weimar Republic. The porousness of Germany’s eastern border was seen to be symptomatic of Germany’s weakness. At the same time, it diminished the state’s legitimacy, which was predicated on its ability to perform essential tasks such as controlling its borders. Sammartino, following an argument put forward twenty years ago by the political scientist Timothy Mitchell, finds: “[T]he failure of the state to guard its frontiers adequately, as in the case of Weimar Germany, also has metaphorical consequences that are at least as damaging as the practical problems posed by the refugees.” This failure was then projected onto the refugees who had the least claim to be part of the nation, namely Jews from eastern Europe; as a result, “anti-Semitic stereotypes imbued immigration policy with an increased sense of threat.”

So far, this summary of Sammartino’s argument could support a teleological account – that is, one in which Weimar Germany necessarily became Nazi Germany. But to her credit, Sammartino is interested in the past in its own right. She shows that while the porousness of its borders was a sign of Germany’s weakness it was also made possible by the Prussian government’s decision not to deploy large numbers of police at the border. It also reflected the fact that, while the citizenship law of 1913 seemed to indicate that the advocates of jus soli had lost out, an analysis of the practices of several German states in the interwar years shows that non-Germans were sometimes able to take out German citizenship. In fact, Sammartino demonstrates that it does not always make sense to speak of “Germany,” as individual German states approached issues of immigration and citizenship differently. Saxonia and Prussia, which were ruled by the Social Democrats, developed citizenship and immigration policies and practices that were sometimes diametrically opposed to those of Bavaria, one of the states controlled by the conservatives. While in Weimar Germany “anti-Semitism and anti-foreigner sentiment formed a dangerous and mutually self-reinforcing spiral,” the political left and the interior ministry of the most populous German state, Prussia, supported asylum claims by eastern European Jews, with Prussian interior minister Wolfgang Heine saying in 1919 that Jewish refugees had to be tolerated “out of humanitarian concern.”

During the early years of the Weimar Republic about 70,000 eastern European Jewish refugees entered Germany. Whether this is considered a large or a small number depends on one’s perspective. Given that those refugees were mainly destitute and that Germany was in dire straits as a consequence of having lost a four-year war, 70,000 was arguably a large number. It was small, though, in comparison to the half a million non-Jewish Russians taking refuge in Germany at the same time, most of whom were equally dependent on charity. In the early 1920s, in Berlin alone, every tenth resident was a Russian refugee. But their presence was not considered evidence of the porousness of Germany’s eastern border, because, according to Sammartino, they kept to themselves and were seen to respect an invisible border that separated them from the German nation. That separation allowed Germans to sympathise with Russian émigrés as fellow sufferers, whereas eastern European Jews were seen to be competing for the same scarce resources. I am not entirely convinced by that argument. The seemingly unproblematic presence of some 500,000 evidently foreign refugees in Weimar Germany probably deserves more consideration. That it has attracted little attention thus far could also be due to the fact that it does not seem to fit into histories in which the past is only of interest as long as it has led to the present.


THE Impossible Border is historical scholarship at its best. It is full of surprises (without being at all sensationalist), demonstrating that there is far more to the early 1920s than histories of the origins of the 1930s suggest. The book is meticulously researched (at least as far as I could tell as a non-specialist reader) and carefully argued. It is well written, although readers might want to skip the executive summary–style chapter introductions. My review cannot provide more than a snapshot of Sammartino’s rich argument; that in itself could be taken as evidence of the book’s quality. Although it shouldn’t be taken as yet another text about Nazi Germany, it does pay to read the book partly as a prompt for thinking about more recent developments.

Since the first Schengen agreement of 1985, it has been possible to cross the Dutch–German or French–German borders without showing a passport. As the Iron Curtain was dismantled from late 1989, a new curtain was drawn to shield the West from the East – or rather, to stop forced migrants of the global south from entering the European Union via eastern or southeastern Europe. Poland joined the Schengen club in 2007, but the subsequent removal of barriers along the Oder and Neisse rivers was deceptive. The German–Polish border is still being patrolled, and German security forces are still keeping a close, albeit less visible, eye on those who move from east to west. And as the barriers along the Polish–German border were dismantled, generous EU funding allowed Poland to reinforce the fortifications along its eastern frontier. If a state’s ability to secure its borders is indeed one of the main criteria by which its performance is judged, and if its legitimacy depends on that performance, then the German state need not worry on that score, even though the task is performed by other states on its behalf.

Images of a fortified border can obscure the fact that after the second world war Germany again had an “impossible” eastern border. The Federal Republic of Germany only formally recognised the so-called Oder-Neisse border, which separated the German Democratic Republic from Poland (or, as West German school children were taught, from the “former German territories in the East”), in 1970. That recognition was so controversial at the time that it almost ended Willy Brandt’s tenure as chancellor, not much more than a year after he had been elected. His ability to secure the recognition was significant enough to make him Time magazine’s man of the year in 1970, and to earn him the Nobel Prize for Peace the following year. The victors of the second world war were sufficiently concerned about Germany’s position to demand that both German states renew their pledge to respect the German–Polish border as a precondition of German reunification in 1990.

While there have been no attempts by German officials to dispute the validity of Poland’s western border since 1990, Poles themselves have become increasingly worried about a German recolonisation of former German territory. Some Germans – often people who had been expelled from former Eastern Germany after 1945, or their descendants – have indeed bought real estate in Poland. Those purchases (which so far concern only a small proportion of Polish land) have triggered much anxiety in Poland, whose government made it a condition for joining the European Union that it would be permitted to restrict the sale of property to foreigners until 2016.

From a West German point of view, the border separating West and East, Western civilisation and Eastern barbarism, was arguably not the one recognised in 1970 but the Iron Curtain that separated the two Germanys. While West Germans decried the erection of the Berlin Wall, many were also quietly relieved that their eastern border had been sealed. The German–German border kept out West Germans’ eastern neighbours as well as the poor cousins in the German Democratic Republic who had good reason to be envious and resentful.

Since the second world war, Germans have been afraid of the East. During the war they were told, and had good reason to believe, that the peoples of the East would exact terrible revenge if they were not kept out of Germany. During the Cold War, West Germans conflated memories of a revengeful Red Army with fears of a Soviet Union intent on extending its empire with the help of nuclear weapons. Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the end of communism, Russia is still the subject of fears and again the focus of dreams. Much like during the Weimar Republic, it still tends to be considered primitive and primeval. It poses a threat and promises riches – not to German settlers but to entrepreneurs “opening up” markets.

The most interesting contemporary relevance of Sammartino’s history concerns the postulated unity of nation, state and territory. If East Germans assumed in 1990 that reunification made such unity possible they would have been surprised to find themselves joining a state that accommodated millions of people who were not considered part of the German nation.

Only in the past ten years have Germans begun to acknowledge that Germany is a country of immigration and that a unity of nation and territory can be achieved only if two conditions are met: Auslandsdeutsche from eastern Europe, who are once again migrating in large numbers to a country they know little about and whose language they don’t speak, must no longer be automatically entitled to German citizenship; and long-term German residents must be invited to become citizens regardless of their ethnicity, whether they were born in Germany, or whether they want to remain nationals of another country.

Over the next few years, Germany’s anxieties about how to define and police its borders may well prove to be as deep-seated as they were in the early 1920s. Today, in Sammartino’s words, as in the early 1920s, “the rhetoric of crisis” is fast becoming “itself a component of crisis.” •

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