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Interview with Mark Kettler

April 26, 2021

The selection committee awarded the 2020 Huttenbach Prize to Mark T. Kettler’s article “Designing Empire for the Civilized East: Colonialism, Polish Nationhood, and German War Aims in the First World War”. ASN discusses with Dr. Kettler German imperial ideology and what its disparate policies reveal about nationalism and colonialism in the early 20th century.

ASN: In the article you mention that there is an ongoing debate among historians about Germany’s experiences with overseas colonies, and whether imperial and Nazi ideology can be seen as a continuation of colonial policies. How do you position your argument about the Polish case vis-à-vis this debate? 

MK: Recently there has been so much great scholarship examining how colonial projects impacted almost every aspect of German society. Naturally, the influence of colonialism on German attempts to project power into Eastern Europe has excited particular interest. On one side of this debate, prominent historians have argued that colonial technologies and methods of rule extensively influenced German imperial projects in Eastern Europe. Some have argued that German writers, politicians, and intellectuals had begun to “discursively colonize” Eastern Europe by the late nineteenth century, portraying Poland and other Eastern European societies as primitive, barbaric, and incapable of governing their own affairs. Framing Eastern Europe as colonial space, this school argues, permitted German policy-makers to justify a wide variety of intrusive and violent imperial programs in the region. These interpretations generally weave together the German Empire, the First World War, Nazism, and the Second World War into a long narrative of pathological continuity. The same types of colonial practices and ideologies which underwrote the brutal rule over colonies in Africa would later structure the Germany’s imperial agenda during the First World War, as well as Nazi Germany’s horrifically violent campaigns decades later. 

These narratives have provoked a lot of debate. Critics have been particularly vocal about the ways in which Germany’s Eastern European imperial projects in both World Wars differed substantially from each other and colonial antecedents. However, this notion of “discursive colonization”, this idea that German attitudes towards Poland and Eastern Europe fundamentally resembled colonial ideologies, has received a lot less critical attention. 

I don’t view Nazi Germany’s violent wars of conquest as deeply rooted in nineteenth century German colonialism. I try to do two things in this article. First, I want to show that German imperial actors did not automatically imagine that the same methods of rule used in African colonies would be appropriate for projecting power into Eastern Europe. During the First World War, writers and intellectuals who had long supported the vicious exploitation of Germany’s African colonies often concluded that using similar methods to govern conquests in Russian Poland would be futile or even counterproductive. Second, I want to challenge this notion that German policy toward Eastern Europe in the early twentieth century was consistently structured by assumptions about the region’s inferiority or primitivity. Some of the German Empire’s most influential thinkers were reluctant to use colonial methods of rule in Russian Poland precisely because they viewed Poland as a culturally productive and politically sophisticated nation. Colonialism offered a set of tools for managing foreign populations. But German imperialists did not reflexively seize these tools. Our challenge as historians is to explain why German intellectuals and policymakers embraced some instruments of imperial management over others, and why their preferences shifted over time. 

ASN: What is multinational imperialism and why was it popular with German nationalists in the early 20th century? 

MK: German imperialists faced a problem during the First World War. Civilian authorities, army officers, and prominent intellectuals could broadly agree that Germany’s future security demanded seizing control of part or all of Congress Poland. But there didn’t seem to be any good options for governing these spaces. Specifically, imperial planners worried that Polish nationalists would lead popular resistance to subvert or even overthrow any foreign authority they considered illegitimate. Virtually everybody agreed that large Polish-speaking populations couldn’t be “Germanized”. The failure of similar efforts in Prussia had taught them that much. But many warned that Congress Poland simply couldn’t be subjugated or exploited in the same way that Germany’s colonies in Africa were. 

To get around this strategic paradox, some thinkers and policymakers attempted to negotiate with Polish nationalists and even harness Polish nationalism to serve German imperial objectives. These imperialists proposed to strike a bargain with Polish nationalists, offering political autonomy to Poland in exchange for permanent incorporation into a German imperial structure. There were variants of this model, but the basic idea was to create an autonomous Polish state in permanent military and political union with the German Empire. Berlin would set a common foreign policy for this union, establish standards for military equipment and training, and, in the event of war, the Kaiser would assume supreme command over the combined armed forces of Germany and Poland. But in virtually all other matters the kingdom of Poland would govern its domestic affairs entirely without interference from Berlin. This attempt to incorporate new spaces and populations through the institutionalization of national autonomy, rather than the suppression of national identity, is what I call multinational imperialism.  

Multinational imperialism becomes an extremely influential paradigm during the war. This is due partly to how German observers read Polish nationalism. Multinationalists respected Polish nationalism as a powerful force, but they did not believe that national identity automatically determined political loyalty. Multinationalists insisted that Poles – even Polish nationalists – could be persuaded, perhaps also manipulated, to see union with Germany as in their national interests. Multinationalists wagered that Poles would eventually accept union with the German Empire as a legitimate mechanism for guaranteeing their own autonomy from predatory powers like Russia. Multinationalists saw negotiation with Polish nationalists as the most efficient, and the only plausible, strategy for securing German objectives in Eastern Europe. 

But as I examine in my wider research, how Germans understood their own collective past and national ideals also bolstered support for multinational imperialism. We often think about the radical chords of German nationalism, the strident racism of the Pan-Germans for example. But this was only one strand of nationalism in the late German Empire, and its influence was often quite limited. By contrast, many multinational imperialists were also federal nationalists. They celebrated the political decentralization and stubborn cultural diversity of the German Empire. Discourses of federal nationalism equipped these thinkers and policy-makers with vocabularies and narratives to argue that cultural diversity was compatible with imperial cohesion and indeed conducive to the artistic, intellectual, and economic productivity of the empire as a whole. Multinational imperialism, in short, was legible to many Germans precisely because its assumptions fit quite comfortably with how they already thought about the German nation.

ASN: How did Germany’s occupation of Congress Poland change the way German imperialists understood nationalism?

MK: This is a central priority of my larger book project. In November 1916 the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires jointly announced the foundation of the Kingdom of Poland. Berlin immediately began constructing an autonomous Polish state with the aim of eventually binding this kingdom in permanent union with the German Empire. But this proved extremely difficult in the midst of war. Due partly to economic conditions, partly to the uncertain outcome of the war, and partly to severe miscalculations by Berlin, the German occupation government was far less capable of mobilizing enthusiastic Polish collaboration than initially anticipated. Frictions between the German occupation government and the resident Polish population began to mount. In the final years of the war, Germany’s statebuilding project in Congress Poland was interrupted by crisis after crisis. 

These political crises chipped away at policymakers’ confidence in the plausibility of reconstructing Germany as a multinational empire. They challenged assumptions about national identity and political allegiance central to multinationalist proposals. Imperialists started to doubt their ability to influence Polish nationalism, to channel its sentiments or manipulate its discourses to reinforce German imperial legitimacy. They began to worry that Polish national interests were inalterably hostile to German imperial interests. They began to fear that an autonomous Polish state would invariably betray the German Empire. They started to see national diversity as inherently hostile to imperial security. 

ASN: Did Germans’ experiences with Poland impact treatment of other ethnic minorities and the overall direction of imperial/expansionist policies?

MK: This is also something I explore in the larger book project. Mounting frustrations with the situation in Congress Poland significantly affected evolving imperial policy along Russia’s Baltic coast, what is today Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. In 1917 the German Empire was reconsidering its tack, trying to entice more local collaboration by offering varying degrees of autonomy. But, having lost faith that autonomous national states could be relied upon to defend and serve a German imperial structure, they proposed qualitatively different imperial relationships to these Baltic territories. German planners did not, for example, recommend the creation of a Lithuanian national army. They also obsessed over how to quarantine Baltic societies from Polish cultural and political influence. Their nightmare was that Poland would not only break away from German imperial control, but it would also pry Lithuania from Germany’s orbit in the process.

One also sees a gradual transformation of imperial policy in Congress Poland. As military and civilian authorities began to doubt the future allegiance of an autonomous Polish state, they revisited previously discarded ideas for securing the German Empire’s strategic objectives in Eastern Europe. Some abandoned multinationalism altogether, calling instead for the annexation and ruthless Germanization of the most important territories in Congress Poland. For most the shift was more subtle. Multinationalist policymakers began to hedge their bets. They were less eager to train and equip a large Polish national army. They devised new ways to contain and isolate the Kingdom of Poland. They started promoting the annexation of larger parcels of territory along the western, northern, and eastern frontiers of Congress Poland. All of these moves pointed to a profound loss of confidence. German imperialists had largely ceased to regard an autonomous Kingdom of Poland as a potential strategic asset and had instead come to view it as a probable liability. 

In 1918, the nature of German imperialism going forward was still an open question. Growing doubts had not scuttled multinationalist policy. With only a brief interlude in late 1917, Berlin continued to build a German-Polish union until the final weeks of the war. But the manner in which Germany lost the war and, just as critically, the manner in which military, civilian, and intellectual elites retroactively interpreted Germany’s imperial policy in Congress Poland, consolidated the view that multinational imperialism had always been a fools’ errand, that Poles would have always tenaciously resisted union with the German Empire, and that national diversity represented an intrinsic threat to imperial security and stability. This interpretation of the war, I argue, profoundly affected future imperial discourses. 

ASN: What does your discussion of German visions for a Polish multinational state contribute to studies of colonialism?

MK: We’ve already discussed what German proposals for a “German-Polish Ausgleich” tell us about how colonial ideas influenced imperial projects in Eastern Europe. This question led me to the research for this article. I did not find what I expected. 

But we can reverse-engineer these findings to contemplate colonialism more broadly. There is a temptation to explain colonialists’ discourses of racial inferiority or cultural primitivity as post-facto justifications for brutal systems of exploitation. That is, there is a tendency to see colonialists as cynically using racial and ethnological categories to excuse the systems of rule and the methods of economic exploitation that they preferred anyway: colonialists want land, or resources, or free labor, so they manufacture excuses about how the local population is barbaric or undeserving.

The ways in which perceptions of Polish nationhood limited German imperial plans should caution us to resist this reflex. Many Germans supported the empire’s brutal colonization of Togo, Cameroon, Southwest Africa, and East Africa because they sincerely viewed African societies as culturally stagnant, politically primitive, and racially inferior. German colonialists explicitly argued that the vicious exploitation of these populations would not rob humanity of any important intellectual or cultural innovations. Perversely, some insisted that Europe’s exploitation of African labor and resources would actually benefit humanity. At the same time, they reassured themselves that African societies just wouldn’t be able to muster effective forms of resistance to intrusive colonial rule. Europeans’ assessments of African societies, in other words, functioned as central variables in the cost-benefit analysis of colonial economic and political systems. Seeing these same men take entirely different positions vis-à-vis Poland and the Baltics indicates that these were not cynical or instrumental views. As horrifying as their views towards African societies were, they were also sincerely held.

ASN: What projects are you currently working on?

MK: As I’ve mentioned, this research contributes to a larger book project that I’m working on, The Knight, Death, and the Devil: Germany’s Imperial Renewal and Crisis, 1914-1945. It lays out my argument that the German Empire’s occupation of Congress Poland during the First World War fundamentally transformed how German intellectuals, civilian leaders, and military elites understood national identity and how they thought about governing nationally diverse spaces. 

Going forward, I’m interested in examining policing and crime in the occupied territories of Eastern Europe during the First World War. I would also like to move forward in time, thinking about the aftershocks of imperial collapse in this region. 

But truth be told, right now I’m really excited about a smaller project, one which uses Nosferatu as a lens to examine German attitudes toward Eastern Europe, authority, and foreign adventurism in the immediate wake of the First World War. I’m building a new undergraduate seminar, “The Haunting of Europe”, which will use Nosferatu and other horror stories to examine how Europeans confronted profound existential anxieties produced by rapid social, technological, and political modernization. I’m really excited to unpack these issues with students in the fall. 


Mark T. Kettler’s article “Designing Empire for the Civilized East: Colonialism, Polish Nationhood, and German War Aims in the First World War” was published in Vol. 47, Issue 6 of Nationalities Papers.