Eastern Front (First World War)

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War planning and overview of 1914

The Eastern Front was in the First World War, the main theater of the war of the Central Powers Germany and Austria-Hungary with Russia . The war zone encompassed large parts of Eastern Europe and after Romania's entry into the war in 1916 finally extended from the Baltic States to the Black Sea . In contrast to the almost static positional warfare on the western front for a long time, major shifts in the front also took place in the middle phase of the war. This was due, among other things, to the easier exchange of troops with other theaters of war for the Central Powers due to the geographical location of the Eastern Front (see: Inner Line ).

The decisive factor, however, was the German support for the revolutionary Bolsheviks under Lenin , who took power in Russia in the October Revolution of 1917. Strong pressure from the Central Powers finally forced the revolutionary Soviet Russia to the separate peace of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918, bought above all by the abandonment of the economically important Ukraine . However, this advantage for the Central Powers did not affect the outcome of the war , mainly because the USA had entered the war in the meantime . The dissolution of the multiethnic states Russia and Austria-Hungary and the formation of new nation states in the wake of the war represent a turning point in the history of Europe.

Starting position in the German Reich

Pre-war planning

Flag of the German Empire

Since 1905 at the latest (see Schlieffen Plan ), the German General Staff assumed that a major European war would in any case be waged simultaneously against France and Russia (see Zweiverband ). The danger that this entailed of being forced from the outset into a war on two fronts, which would split up and weaken one's own strength, was to be countered by means of a quick decision in the west, which was enforced by the almost complete concentration of the army against France. Only then was active warfare against Russia planned. Until then, weak cover forces were supposed to defend the Prussian eastern provinces as far as possible, whereby in the worst case a retreat to the line Upper Oder - Fortress Posen - Lower Vistula was considered justifiable.

The plan for a “great eastward march”, which required France's neutrality or at least passivity, was updated year after year even after 1905, but on Moltke's instructions it was put aside entirely in April 1913. Thus, the German military leadership - regardless of the diplomatic contingencies of the initiation and triggering of a major war - committed itself to a single war plan that gave every conceivable conflict a continental dimension from the outset.

For reasons of foreign and domestic policy, the question of a war against Russia played a far greater role in the calculations of the civilian imperial leadership than in the considerations of the military, who were fixated on France and who recently advised against declaring war on Russia. Apart from the fact that the circle around Bethmann Hollweg already considered Russia to be the greater threat to German power in Europe, what the Chancellor wanted in the July crisis was above all a diplomatically viable safeguarding of the offensive German action in the west and the aggravation, at best that Prevention of British entry into the war. For this, however, Russia had to be maneuvered into the attacking position, so the war had to come “from the east”, as the Chancellor remarked to Kurt Riezler on July 8th . Gottlieb von Jagow outlined the logic that led to the German declaration of war on Russia on August 1, 1914 - after the Russian government mobilized, but "had not done the German a favor to start the war" - in a letter to one of them Employees of the Reichsarchiv as follows:

“The task of the political leadership was therefore to initiate and justify this military action, in a form that could make us appear as the 'attacked', the attacker was Russia. We had no quarrel with France. (...) With Belgium there was no conflict at all, the intended violation of neutrality by this country could only be motivated by the war with France, and this in turn only by the war with Russia. Russia's action was therefore the basis on which the action - also to the west - could be justified. (...) The invasion of Belgium could only be justified by the war with France, this only by the war with Russia. If there was no war with Russia, there was absolutely no reason for us to go to war in the West. "

In addition, Bethmann Hollweg considered the war with Russia to be desirable out of consideration for the supporters of the Social Democrats : This was, he believed, a war of aggression in the West could not be mediated without a simultaneous “war of defense” against “reactionary tsarism”, and severe internal tensions would arise the inevitable result of such a case. Albert Ballin , who asked the Chancellor a few hours before the dispatch of the declaration of war on Russia about the reason for his haste in this matter (“I must have my declaration of war on Russia immediately!”), Received from Bethmann Hollweg the answer: “Otherwise I'll get it the Social Democrats not with. "

War aims

The purposes to be pursued in the context of the war against Russia were determined in the course of lengthy, complex disputes in which the civilian imperial leadership and the OHL as well as private and political interest groups participated intensively. Even within otherwise socially and politically homogeneous milieus, in some cases diametrically opposed positions were represented: For example, exposed representatives of the East Elbe nobility committed themselves to an extreme annexation program within the framework of the Pan-German Association and the Fatherland Party , which included the annexation of the Russian Baltic Sea regions to the Kingdom of Prussia provided, while a significant part of the Brandenburg , Pomeranian and East Prussian nobility from the beginning spoke out quite clearly in favor of a compromise peace, the protection of the Russian "peers" and the restoration of the "in his sense good" German-Russian relations of the 19th century. Bethmann Hollweg considered a clear weakening and “pushing back” of Russia to be fundamentally desirable, but until at least the summer of 1915 she also pursued the idea of ​​a separate peace in the East, which ante the status quo - apart from a few “safeguards” that were considered enforceable Guarantees ”- would have restored. In November 1914 as well as in February and July 1915 he had the Danish King Christian X and Danish diplomats undertake appropriate advances in Petrograd (which, despite the relative openness of the Tsar, were thwarted by the preponderance of the Russian war party around Foreign Minister Sasonov ).

Also Erich von Falkenhayn remained - emphatically basically when the Chancellor - until his overthrow in August 1916 supporters of a German-Russian understanding peace, which he held of course, since the end of 1915 no longer accessible. A rapidly growing and ultimately decisive group in and next to the Foreign Office , on the other hand, had been pleading since the beginning of August 1914 for a policy that - provided that Russia suffered a serious military defeat - resulted in a complete “decomposition of the Russian Empire”. In addition to Gottlieb von Jagow, the main protagonists in this direction were Undersecretary Arthur Zimmermann , Rudolf Nadolny , who was seconded by the Foreign Office to the Politics section of the Deputy General Staff , who was employed in the Central Office for Foreign Service and who was closely connected to the circle around Hans Delbrück and Friedrich Naumann liberal journalist Paul Rohrbach as well as the professors Theodor Schiemann and Johannes Haller .

This approach envisaged, through energetic ideological, material and financial support of more or less pronounced nationalist, autonomist and separatist tendencies - the Finns, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles, Jews, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars, Cuban Cossacks and various Caucasian peoples - one To stage the permanent "disintegration" of Russia, which would first paralyze its war efforts and then, enshrined in a peace treaty, become the basis for the construction of new states based on Germany. Rohrbach and others also played with the idea of ​​a "Germanization" of the Baltic region . At Zimmermann's suggestion, from autumn 1915 onwards the Foreign Office was also prepared to promote the activities of Russian revolutionaries in a certain way, i.e. to supplement the nationalist “decomposition” with a social “revolutionization” of Russia.

In particular, the extent of German financial support for the Bolsheviks was the subject of (not only) academic debates for decades. The repeatedly claimed political and financial dependence of the Bolsheviks on German support is now considered a “myth” in specialist literature, but has been and is extensively discussed in recent years in popular science and journalistic publications - especially in the German-speaking area. The “Polish question” played a prominent role in all official and public discussions of the war aims in Germany until the very end, and it also developed into the “key to understanding relations between Vienna and Berlin during the First World War”.

Starting point in Austria-Hungary

kuk double eagle

State of the armed forces

The Austro-Hungarian military was made up of the joint army sent by both parts of the empire from the kk Landwehr of the Austrian and the ku-Honved of the Hungarian half of the empire. This political threefolding made military policy cumbersome within the Danube monarchy. The officer corps of the Joint Army and also in the Ministry of Defense were dominated by German-Austrians within the leading positions. However, the Austro-Hungarian army was the smallest among the military of the great powers. The mobilization strength was around 1.8 to 2 million men. The officer corps had severe problems with recruiting due to poor pay. Military spending had been reduced from 29.1% to 19.7% of the budget since 1870. The armed forces were deliberately underfunded so that only around 29% of the conscripts actually had to serve in peacetime. Russia and the German Reich came to around 40% here. France even to 86%. Quarrels within the political leadership and the officer corps also delayed modernization measures for armament and equipment.

Pre-war planning

The dual alliance concluded in 1879 ensured that Austria-Hungary was bound to the German Empire. Within the Austro-Hungarian leadership, however, there was definitely a dichotomy in relation to Germany, as the elite of the Danube Monarchy feared paternalism from their more powerful allies. The Triple Alliance concluded in 1882 represented a formal alliance with Italy, but the relationship between Austria-Hungary and Italy was so fragile that the Austrian leadership expected at best Italian neutrality. The rapprochement between Russia and the United Kingdom that began in 1907 led to the constellation of a two-front war between the Central Powers against France and England on the one hand and Russia and the Kingdom of Serbia on the other.

There was no common pre-war planning within the Central Powers. There were agreements between the Chiefs of the General Staff Moltke and Conrad , but these remained very superficial. Austria-Hungary was given the role of holding the position for three to four weeks in the Balkans and against Russia until the German army defeated France. The Austrian leadership submitted to the Schlieffen Plan , but the Austrian Chief of Staff Conrad von Hötzendorff planned, if possible, to eliminate Serbia first and then to turn to Russia. In the event of war with Russia, the plan of the Joint Army in Galicia saw the A squadron with three armies deployed against Russia. A minimal group of the Balkans should be brought into position against Serbia. Depending on the situation, the reserves composed in the B-squadron , which comprised an army, should either be brought into effect immediately against Russia or initially against Serbia. The Austro-Hungarian Navy , which mainly operates in the Mediterranean, had prepared for war by setting up a Danube flotilla against Serbia. The Austro-Hungarian General Staff had no further plans for this case; the further strategy of the war was left to the German leadership.

The Russian side was informed in detail about Austria-Hungary's plans from 1907 to 1913 due to the agent activities of Austrian Colonel Alfred Redl . However, since the plans were constantly changed from 1913 until the outbreak of war, the actual betrayal of secrets remained with only minor consequences. Rather, the agent activity hindered the intelligence activities of the Danube Monarchy, since Redl's activity on the Russian side enabled efficient counter-espionage to be carried out.

Starting position in the Russian Empire

Flag of the Russian Empire

Pre-war planning

After the lost Russo-Japanese War of 1904/05, the Russian Empire had to give up its imperialist aspirations in Asia and therefore concentrated particularly on the Balkans. The Panslawismus , the goal is to unite all Slavic peoples, brought the Russian Empire inevitably into conflict with Austria-Hungary and its German allies. Likewise, the aim was to achieve free access to the Mediterranean Sea and a permanently ice-free port on the Baltic Sea. East Prussia, bordering on Russian rule, and part of West Prussia were to be annexed. In order to gain access to the Mediterranean, sovereignty over the Bosporus had to be won, which would inevitably bring the Russian government into a conflict with the Ottoman Empire , whose continued existence was thus called into question.

Russian military doctrine experienced a turning point at the beginning of the 20th century. In spite of its ties to France, the Russian army command had taken a defensive position since 1893. A defensive war was to be waged behind the Vistula . The western Polish areas, which were enclosed on three sides by Germany and Austria-Hungary and therefore difficult to defend, were to be surrendered for the time being. That changed when the Russian Minister of War Sukhomlinov in 1910 the Plan No. 19 adopted. This envisaged an advance by the Russians into German territory in order to relieve France of a probable attack in the course of the Schlieffen Plan . The leading military adviser to the minister, Yuri Danilov , had chosen East Prussia for this advance, as it could be attacked from both the south and the northeast. Much to the dissatisfaction of its creators, the political and social rivalries within the tsar's army prevented the full implementation of the plan.

Instead, a compromise solution came into force: the division of Russian forces into two army groups, one against Germany and one against Austria-Hungary. The adapted plan made two armies available for the invasion of the German territory. The 1st Army (Nyemen Army) under General Paul von Rennenkampff was to advance from the Memel , while the II Army (Narew Army) under General Alexander Samsonov was to march from the south. At the same time the south-western front under Nikolai Ivanov in Galicia was to take action against the Danube monarchy .

Social and political situation

The social situation in the tsarist empire had long been critical, the majority of the people lived in poverty. The autocracy operated by the tsar caused discontent among the bourgeoisie and the nobility .

After the Russo-Japanese War and the subsequent recession , the Russian Revolution of 1905 had come. The intellectuals also made demands for greater freedom. The tsar lost his domestic authority and could only prevent an overthrow by making concessions to the population ( October Manifesto ). This is how the Duma came into being as the first Russian parliament. Due to the constitution, it hardly had any effective influence. But the expanding press gave it great propaganda influence over the people. This restricted the government's freedom of action more and more, as the liberal MPs made the fundamental opposition to the state socially acceptable. They prepared the ground for the extremely violent left groups of the October Revolution in this regard .

This opposition was exacerbated by the reactionary policies of the Tsar and his lack of understanding of modernizing the political structure. Thus Russia turned more and more into a weak autocracy with an unstable government, which constantly had to take into account the currents of a public hostile to it. Although a kind of truce was also concluded in Russia in 1914 , it did not last long due to the military setbacks.

As early as 1915, displeasure in parliament continued to grow, and tensions arose in the Duma, so that the tsar dissolved it and had MPs prosecuted despite their immunity . During the following years there were demonstrations and strikes across the country, up to and including the February Revolution of 1917 .

War year 1914

Mobilization and deployment

Central Powers

As foreseen in the pre-war plans, after the declaration of war on Russia (August 1) , the German Supreme Army Command assembled only one major unit in the east, the 8th Army (10 1/2 infantry divisions, 1 cavalry division) in East Prussia . The Army High Command was set by the OHL in principle on the strategic defensive, but at the same time it was allowed to take local offensive after the start of the expected Russian advance if there were favorable prospects - for example in the area of ​​the Masurian Lakes ; In addition, it received prior permission to give up in the "extreme emergency (...) Prussia east of the Vistula".

The Austro-Hungarian High Command formed the 1st, 3rd and 4th Army in Galicia as well as the Kövess Army Group (together 37 1/2 infantry divisions and 12 cavalry divisions), while the 5th and 6th Armies against Serbia and Montenegro deployed (the 2nd Army, which was also provided for this purpose, was eventually redirected to Galicia, but only arrived after the operations had started); it decided to attack the Russian troops assembled in the Lublin - Cholm area after the deployment with the 1st and 4th Armies, the remaining units were to cover this advance by offensive actions to the east and northeast. In the context of this conception, the fact that Helmuth von Moltke had promised the Austro-Hungarian Chief of Staff Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf in 1909 a time-coordinated German advance towards Siedlce from East Prussia played a certain role . However, the German side did not take any practical steps in this direction; The Austrians were not informed about the actual dispositions and the completely inadequate strength of the 8th Army, instead the German liaison officer at the Austro-Hungarian headquarters, Hugo von Freytag-Loringhoven , repeatedly urged Conrad to take offensive actions (which he was inclined to take anyway). The extent to which the non-compliance with the promise was decisive for the decision to attack - and thus indirectly responsible for the subsequent catastrophe - was already discussed internally during the war and publicly controversial after the war.

A continuous “front” in the sense of the later meaning of the word did not yet exist in the East, especially on the part of the Central Powers, in the first months of the war. The Austro-Hungarian deployment area in the south - for the Danube Monarchy the main theater of war - and the German in the north - in the eyes of the OHL in general and especially at the beginning of the war, a secondary theater of war - were neither geographically nor operationally linked. Most of the German-Russian border - especially in the provinces of Silesia , Posen and West Prussia - was initially only covered by weak security forces of the second and third rank (see Landwehr Corps ). Aside from the main theater of war, Austria-Hungary deployed 2 1/2 infantry divisions and a cavalry division to cover Krakow .


The Russian High Command (see Stawka ) under the direction of Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolajewitsch formed a northwestern front directed against East Prussia (1st and 2nd Army, at the beginning of the fighting 19 infantry and 8 cavalry divisions) and a southwestern front directed against Galicia (3rd Army). , 4th, 5th and 8th Army, at the beginning of the fighting 46 infantry and 18 cavalry divisions). In addition, after repeated urging by Great Britain and France, it began on August 7th with the formation of two more armies (the 9th and the 10th) in central Poland, with which advances against Breslau and Posen should be undertaken. For this purpose, it mainly used troops that were originally intended for the northwest and southwest fronts. It was also not very favorable that the Russian commander-in-chief had assured the representatives of the Western allies that after the 15th day of mobilization he would be able to take offensive actions against the Central Powers on both fronts. At the critical moment, Great Britain and France insisted on implementing this promise, although the deployment against Austria-Hungary in particular was far from over at this point.

Course of war

Russian infantrymen on the advance along a railway line

In order to better shield the Upper Silesian industrial area , German troops occupied Czestochowa and Kalisch on August 3rd . The latter was - as "retaliation" for alleged attacks by the civilian population - on 7./8. August fired with artillery and burned to a large extent ( destruction of Kalisz ). With the penetration of the Russian 1st Army into East Prussia, beginning on August 17th, operations of strategic importance began in the east (see battle at Stallupönen ). The Russian 2nd Army crossed the German border two days later. After the German defeat at Gumbinnen (August 19-20), the Commander-in-Chief and Chief of Staff of the 8th Army, who had doubted in a telephone conversation with the OHL that the Vistula Line could be held, were replaced by Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff replaced. At the same time Moltke decided to strengthen the 8th Army with two army corps withdrawing from the west. Even before these troops arrived, the 8th Army was able to almost completely crush the Russian 2nd Army in the Battle of Tannenberg (23–31 August). A little later, in the Battle of the Masurian Lakes (September 8–10), the Russian 1st Army was also defeated and then withdrew across the border.

The Russian advance against East Prussia had thus failed. Another Russian offensive, more limited in its objectives, led to the provisional occupation of the eastern parts of East Prussia two months later, but in mid-November it got stuck in the now heavily developed German positions along the Angerapp and the Masurian Lakes. At this point the focus of the German-Russian front had already shifted to the south.

While the Russian troops withdrew from East Prussia in mid-September, the armies raised against Austria-Hungary operated far more successfully. Since the Russian Southwest Front and the Austro-Hungarian armies began their offensive operations almost simultaneously, several large encounter battles developed in the second half of August, in which hundreds of thousands of soldiers were involved (→  Battle of Galicia ). Despite the Austrian victories at Kraśnik (August 22–25 ) and Komarów ( August 26–31 ) and the initially promising advance of the Austro-Hungarian troops south of Lublin, the tide turned at the end of August. After several defeats, especially on the right wing ( Battle of Złoczów on August 26th / 27th, Battle of Brzeżany on August 26th) and the loss of Lviv (August 30th), Conrad ordered his already badly battered armies to launch a counteroffensive, which in the Battle of Lemberg (September 7-11) failed. On September 11th, the Austro-Hungarian High Command had to order a general withdrawal. This was accompanied in places by symptoms of dissolution; About 100,000 soldiers gave themselves up, only east of Cracow and in the run-up to the Carpathian Mountains did the withdrawal movement come to a standstill, aided by the reluctant advance of the also heavily weakened Russian troops. The Przemyśl fortress , in which several divisions were enclosed, was now far in the Russian hinterland (→  Siege of Przemyśl ). For this disaster - in addition to the prisoners, 322,000 dead and wounded were recorded, and large amounts of war material and around 1,000 urgently needed locomotives were lost due to the fleeing departure - the Viennese government and the army high command primarily blamed the “fraudulent deception” by their ally .

In the event that there were still no measures to support the Austro-Hungarian warfare, the German side - who accused Conrad on September 5, "let his troops down" and instead preferred the " stud farms in Trakehnen and the deer hunts in Rominten " to have protected - indirectly threatened with a separate peace. The OHL was forced to act anyway, as the Russian march in central Poland now posed a serious threat to the Prussian provinces of Silesia and Poznan. It formed the new 9th Army from parts of the 8th Army, reserves and supplies from the west in Upper Silesia , which was to advance against Warsaw and Ivangorod together with the Austro-Hungarian 1st Army . This advance began on September 28th and culminated in the Battle of the Vistula , in which the German-Austrian met the Russian offensive movement that began on October 5th. At the beginning of October the Austro-Hungarian armies in Galicia began an offensive, which was initially successful and temporarily led to the suspension of Przemyśl's enclosure. By the end of October, however, both offensive operations had failed completely, and the warfare of the Central Powers fell into another serious crisis.

German supply column on the Eastern Front, 1914

To better coordinate German operations in the east, a new command authority was formed on November 1 ( Oberbefehlshaber Ost , Ober Ost or Oberost for short ), headed by Hindenburg and Ludendorff. In addition to the 8th and 9th Army, all German units and military agencies in the provinces of East Prussia, West Prussia, Pomerania, Posen and Silesia were subordinated to it. From the beginning, Oberost acted "almost unrestrictedly independent" and soon developed into a military-political center for the advocates of particularly aggressive and far-reaching German warfare and planning of war objectives. After the Russian offensive had subsided, Hindenburg and Ludendorff decided to make a risky advance from the Hohensalza - Thorn area into the flank of the Russian south-western front. To do this, they moved the bulk of the 9th Army north by rail within a few days. The attack, which came as a complete surprise to the Russian side, began on November 11th and after eventful fighting (→  Battle of Łódź ) led to the German occupation of Łódź (December 6th).

During and after this operation, the first of a series of serious disputes between Oberost and the new OHL over Erich von Falkenhayn developed . Hindenburg, Ludendorff and their most important collaborator, Max Hoffmann , accused Falkenhayn of preventing a decisive defeat for Russia by refusing to bring in further troops and continuing the German attacks in the west (→  First Battle of Flanders ). Falkenhayn, on the other hand, assessed the situation far more cautiously and thought, at best, that the Russian troops could be pushed back into Warsaw. Meanwhile, in the battle of Limanowa-Lapanow (December 5-15 ) , Austro-Hungarian troops won a victory against Russian troops advancing on Krakow and threw them back on Gorlice and behind the Dunajec . A German advance in northern Poland came to a halt on the Rawka in the second half of December . At the end of the year, a continuous, but by no means as strong as in the west, a front line had emerged in the east , which began in the north on the Curonian Lagoon , east Tilsit , Gumbinnen , Lötzen and Johannisburg crossed East Prussia from north to south, in Russian Poland took a sharp turn to the southwest, turned south again at Płock , reached Austrian territory northwest of Tarnów , crossed the Carpathian Mountains in a southeastern direction and finally met the Romanian border south of the Russian-occupied Chernivtsi .

The initial operational plans of Russia and Austria-Hungary had failed at the end of the year, while the German side had almost completely achieved its main goal formulated at the beginning of the war - the defensive assertion of the German eastern territories. The allied Austro-Hungarian army suffered blows from which it never fully recovered. By the end of 1914 it had lost 1.269 million dead, wounded, sick, prisoners and missing persons, about a million of them on the Russian front.

With efforts, these losses could be replaced quantitatively, but not qualitatively - they had hit the line regiments of the prewar period in particular. With Eastern Galicia and Bukovina , fertile agricultural areas and important oil fields were lost. Only the anything but secure defense of the Carpathian passes kept the Russian troops from advancing into the Hungarian lowlands (→  winter battle in the Carpathian Mountains ).

The military and political dependence of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy on Germany had increased by the end of the year, while the influence of the Entente on the attitude of Italy and Romania towards the weakened Austria-Hungary had increased significantly. Since there was a real danger of a complete defeat of the Danube monarchy as a result of the situation that had arisen, the OHL was forced to concentrate much stronger forces in the east than before and to remain defensive in the west as a whole.

War year 1915

Course of the war in 1915

The year 1914 had left a precarious position for the Central Powers . The attacks on the northwestern front against East Prussia had been repulsed. The second Russian army division, the south-western front under Nikolai Ivanov , however, had won a victory against Austria-Hungary. Due to quarrels within the leadership and the outdated tactical level of the Austro-Hungarian army, the Russians had succeeded in conquering almost all of Galicia and advancing into the Carpathian Mountains . The Danube Monarchy was thus faced with a serious strategic threat, as the tsar's armed forces were able to penetrate the Hungarian lowlands with one push through the Carpathians .

On the German section of the front, however, there was further relief after the victories of 1914. The Northwestern Front of the Russians under General Nikolai Russki was planning a new advance into East Prussia. It was indeed weakened by the losses of the previous year and only one operational army was posted on the German border. Thanks to the large reserves of people and material, Russki wanted to set up a new army in the south of the German province. With these forces, analogous to the procedure that had led to the German victory in Tannenberg, a double strike against Konigsberg was to be carried out. The German troops were reinforced by a newly formed army and were now able to attack the remaining Russian army under Thadeus von Sievers on their flanks with two armies and fight them back over a hundred kilometers (→  winter battle in Masuria ). The new Russian army was not operational by the end of the battle and did not intervene in the fighting. With this success, the German leadership duo Hindenburg and Ludendorff had created a broad buffer against the Tsarist empire and averted the seven months long threat to East Prussia from Russian attacks. A collapse of the Russian front, however, could not be achieved, nor was it successful in Poland.

Fleeing Russian peasants, 1915

The Austrian Army Commander Conrad von Hötzendorf met the danger for Hungary in December 1914 and ordered an offensive in the mountains north of the Magyar heartland. However, this winter battle in the Carpathians collapsed by March 1915. Due to the wintry weather and the strong defense of their opponents, the Austro-Hungarian Army lost over 300,000 soldiers.

These losses weighed doubly on Austria-Hungary. In the prewar period, only 20-25% of the population fit for military service was drafted into the army because of financial considerations. Of these, only a tenth received full military training. This meant that the army could only fall back on insufficiently trained reserves to make up for its losses.

Analogous to the crews, the high losses of officers turned out to be a further fatal minus for the army's fighting strength. The long-serving officers were replaced by quickly trained newcomers. This new generation of military leaders was often incapable of leading the ethnically heterogeneous forces. This resulted in the long-term alienation of the Slav soldiers from their commanders. After the liberation propagated by Conrad von Hötzendorf , Austria was on the verge of collapse, its own army was demoralized and weakened, and the Russians were far in the Reich territory. In fact, the winter offensive in the Carpathians was supposed to be the last independent operation of the Austro-Hungarian armed forces. From that point on, the Austrian army increasingly became the junior partner of its German ally. The military strength of the Habsburg state was to be maintained by increasingly interlinking with German leadership personnel. This began with the involvement of German troops and German staff and continued until the end of the war, albeit to a lesser extent, until the use of German NCOs.

As early as January 1915, General Ludendorff turned to the commander of the Supreme Army Command, Erich von Falkenhayn, and demanded German intervention to prevent the collapse of the ally. Ludendorff proposed a double enclosure over the entire eastern front, in which the Austrians from the south-west and the Germans from the north-west should enclose the Russian troops in Poland in a basin several hundred kilometers deep. Falkenhayn found this plan too uncertain and did not want to withdraw troops from the western front for it. He favored a plan that Conrad von Hötzendorf had drawn up. The target of the attack should be a vulnerability in III. Army of the Russian Southwest Front in southern Galicia. The Austrian army chief wanted to concentrate the greatest possible numerical superiority on this weakly defended section of the front in order to achieve a breakthrough. Falkenhayn approved of this classic planning of the Clausewitz type, he only doubted the Austrians' ability to carry it out. In support of the Danube Monarchy, he sent the 11th Army under August von Mackensen , whereby the German Reich provided the majority of the forces for the operation. The company went down in history as the Battle of Gorlice-Tarnów and brought about a turning point on the Eastern Front. The Russian front collapsed as a result of the German breakthrough and the Russian army had to completely evacuate Poland before it found its way out of its disorganization.

Russian munitions and leadership crisis

After the disaster at Gorlice-Tarnów, the Tsar's army initially withdrew to the San River , but these positions could not be held either. The Russian army had to evacuate all of Poland as it was impossible for the Stawka to make up for the losses and consolidate the front line. This maneuver in the direction of the interior went down in Russian history as the “ Great Retreat ” and by autumn 1915 gave up large parts of the western border areas to the Central Powers. The Russian high command blamed the shortage of artillery ammunition for the losses in the war year (the so-called ammunition crisis, however, affected all warring parties in 1915). There were major weaknesses in production: The procurement of ammunition in the Tsarist Empire was problematic, the military's confidence in their own industry was low and the willingness to invest in factories was underdeveloped until 1916. This was partly justified because the Russian private sector produced more expensively compared to state-owned companies or abroad. The solution that the War Department tried, however, caused the ammunition supply to collapse completely. The Russian bullet requirement should be covered to almost 50% from Great Britain and the USA . Since the commissioned companies were working to full capacity to meet the needs of the Western powers, only 12% of the required numbers had been delivered by the summer of 1916. But even the armaments supplied could only be used late due to the inadequate infrastructure. A rethink in the War Ministry and in the Great Headquarters took place in the winter of 1915. In the following year, the Russian army was able to increase its ammunition production by a factor of 2.5 and meet its needs without the inadequate help of the allies. The price for this, however, was high purchase prices. This led to an enormous national debt and thus further fueling of the war-related inflation .

The catastrophic course of the war year 1915 with the loss of large areas and the loss of 3 million soldiers, including 300,000 dead, triggered a domestic political crisis in Russia. War Minister Vladimir Sukhomlinov was accused of treason in the press and was replaced by Alexei Polivanov in June 1915 . In August 1915, the Tsar deposed Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolayevich as Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Army and formally took over this post himself. The Tsar also exchanged Chief of Staff Nikolai Januschkewitsch for Mikhail Alexejew .

Upper East

After the German troops had conquered large areas in the east, the military administrative area Ober Ost was founded under the direction of the Commander in Chief of the entire German armed forces in the east . The German military administration comprised parts of what is now Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. Under the influence of Ludendorff, this area was developed into a model for German occupation policy. The final political objective in the affected areas, however, remained unclear due to conflicting interests within Germany, but also vis-à-vis Austria-Hungary. The primary interest of the German authorities was the economic control of the region with the aim of exploiting agricultural resources in order to mitigate the effects of the British naval blockade in Germany. In the course of the war economy , all economic activities and transport were placed under the supervision of German military authorities and a system of forced recruitment of workers, resources and products was initiated. However, the area should also fall under German suzerainty culturally. For this purpose, higher education in the Baltic States was made more difficult for non-German locals in order to prevent an educated elite and thus a possible nucleus of autonomy from arising in the first place. Extensive book and newspaper censorship also ensured that every anti-German voice in public opinion was suppressed. The school system was subjected to a German cultural program . The different political objectives in this area ranged from the incorporation of smaller Polish border areas (along the river Warthe) and the establishment of monarchical satellite states (with German nobles at the head of the state) to the complete annexation of large areas and their complete integration into the German Empire. Because of these contradictions, the German occupation policy in the area of Upper East was not uniform and also changed steadily with the change in the political and military situation.

War year 1916

Front lines of the years 1915, 1916 and 1917

Battle of Lake Narach

The war year 1916 brought a recovery for the Russian military leadership. The ammunition crisis had been overcome by increasing in-house production, and so the Russian headquarters saw the army as capable of action again. The old elite of the tsarist army had blamed the lack of heavy artillery and projectiles for the heavy defeats of the first two years of the war. There was no detailed analysis of the outdated tactics. This was facilitated by the fact that the mostly noble high officers were outdated and also cut themselves off socially from their mostly petty-bourgeois troop leaders. Large sections of the Russian staff throughout the war failed to rise above the level of pre-war military theories. As a result, in the spring of 1916, an offensive in accordance with the old conventions was planned on the northwestern front in the territory of Belarus . This battle on Lake Narach turned into a debacle with more than a hundred thousand men lost. This resulted in a partial psychological paralysis of the Russian army command. Even the commander-in-chief Alexeyev doubted the point of any new offensive operation. After advancing material problems in the high positions for the first two years, with a superiority in people and material, only disastrous results were achieved. The battle on Lake Naratsch thus represented a significant turning point in the war. It was the last active operation of the old military elite. The officers concerned were not dismissed, but they no longer believed in the point of an offensive and no longer showed any inclination to start such undertakings.

Brusilov offensive

kuk infantry

While a large part of the General Staff resignedly passed all errors on to ordinary soldiers, there were tactical new developments in the Russian army. Alexei Brusilov had already developed a new concept in the previous war years. The old tactic was to concentrate as many forces as possible in narrowly limited sections and, after a long artillery attack, to chase the infantry by storm on the enemy positions. This led to great losses without achieving any decisive success. Brusilov managed to work out a more successful tactic. On the one hand, he proposed the attack in a section of the front several hundred kilometers long from several directions. This was to prevent the opponent from quickly and systematically distributing his reserves. On the other hand, the distance that the infantry had to cover should be kept as short as possible. If the Russian riflemen had to cover almost a kilometer before the Battle of Narach, Brusilov had the trenches driven as close as possible to the enemy positions. With this form of shock tactic Brusilov succeeded in the first victorious offensive operation of the tsarist army since 1914. His Brusilov offensive plunged the Central Powers into a temporary crisis. After the initial successes, however, they reverted to conservative tactics, which drove up the losses on the Russian side. Although Russian soldiers were back at the Carpathian Mountains in the winter of 1916 , a permanent switch to the shock tactic had not been implemented. This was particularly favored by the fact that large parts of the military leadership disliked the operation, as it was carried out in the front section of the Austro-Hungarian Army .

Romania's entry into the war

Romanian infantry during training

While the military of the Tsarist Empire broke new ground, the Russian political leadership also tried to improve the situation. During the entire course of the world war, the respective great powers tried to win smaller states on their side. Bulgaria's entry into the war on the side of the Central Powers represented such a successful attempt. The Russian politicians saw in Romania the possible tip of the scales to turn the war in Russia's favor. According to the planning of the Russian government, the Romanians should launch an offensive against Austria-Hungary and thereby eliminate Germany's closest allies. These very optimistic expectations could not be fulfilled in reality. The army of the agrarian Balkan country was numerically strong, but comparatively weakly armed and poorly managed. Romania's entry into the war, which was celebrated in Russia , turned into a debacle. Although the Romanian army penetrated Transylvania in the late summer of 1916 , it was quickly pushed back by the counter-offensive of the Danube Army ( Army Group Mackensen ) and the 9th Army (General Erich von Falkenhayn ) from the autumn. The Germans also used their cavalry until the horse shortage towards the end of the year led to most of the mounted divisions being disbanded or converted into rifle divisions. Bucharest fell in early December 1916. By the end of the year the Central Powers had managed to bring almost the entire national territory under their control. It was exactly what the Russian Chief of Staff Alexejew had feared. Due to Romania's weakness, southern Russia was now threatened by the Central Powers. The intervention on the Romanian front did not strengthen Russia, because the troop transfers there weakened the focus of the eastern front in Galicia and Volhynia.

In September 1916, the German Empire achieved the consolidation of the command powers of the Central Powers on the increasingly dependent Austria-Hungary in a joint Supreme Army Command, with the German Emperor as the final decision maker. The Austrian political leadership enforced this by decree of the emperor against the resistance of their military leaders in the person of Conrad von Hötzendorff . The German side feared a collapse of the Danube monarchy and also wanted to narrow the ally's foreign policy leeway for a separate peace.

War year 1917

At the beginning of the third year of the war there was by no means a mood of catastrophe in the military circles of the Russian Empire. On the contrary, it was believed that new efforts would influence the overall situation in the world war. But by the time new companies started, Russia had already sunk into a revolutionary vortex. The collapse of supplies for the population put a stop to further actions by the tsarist military leadership.

Economic collapse of Russia

The year 1917 marked the end of the war for Russia. The fighting had suffered great losses in people and territory, but the military situation was not decisive for the collapse of the Tsarist Empire. The multi-ethnic state suffered more from the economic upheavals that the war had brought on the country. This affected the morale of the population to such an extent that the political fabric of the dynastic monarchy was swept away by the February Revolution . But since the liberal government under Kerensky did not want to end the war and could not improve the situation of the population, the communist overthrow of the Bolsheviks followed . The collapse was manifested in a food crisis, both in the army and in the cities. This demoralized the armed forces, which remained largely passive in the turmoil of upheaval, and drove the workers in the urban centers to the barricades.

Money supply and inflation in the Russian Empire 1914–1917

A major factor in the collapse of Russian capitalism was the collapse of the financial system due to inflation . Due to the war effort, the government had to raise enormous sums to expand and maintain the armed forces. The critical point was to put this spent money back into the national budget in some way. The normal Russian tax system, which mainly covered indirect taxes and income from state monopolies , was not sufficient for this. Since the state apparatus did not feel able to cope with the political pressure for further indirect taxation and the administrative problems of direct taxes, the existing system was not expanded. The solution to this was seen in a broad campaign for war bonds . These should give the citizens an incentive by granting a fixed rate of return to invest in the imminent victory of the tsarist empire. In the course of the war, a total of six bonds were issued, but they failed because of the low demand. Fighting inflation through a system of fixed-rate bonds was pointless, since for an investor in times of rapid inflation these bonds could not offer any profit. So the Russian government had only one way out of avoiding national bankruptcy, namely to fire up the banknote press and finance the state with newly generated paper money. This led to an increase in the total amount of money by more than 800%, which ultimately fueled inflation with its destabilizing effects on the economy.

A widespread legend about the end of the Russian Empire is based on the assumption that food production declined due to the mass recruitment of peasants and servants and thus triggered the revolution. However, according to government estimates, the rural population unneeded for agriculture was 22 million in 1913 , and the tsarist army had only called 17 million soldiers to the front during the first three years of the war. The production figures for the war year 1917 take the explanatory approach of the underproduction even more ad absurdum:

Russian grain harvest 1917
(in 1000 tons )
Harvest 1917 62,391
Reserve for sowing - 11,220
Reserves from the previous year + 10,958
Quantity Available = 62,129
Total consumption - 53,611
excess = 8,518

According to these production figures, the Russian war economy had generated a surplus, despite its loss of people and arable land. Accordingly, there was less a production problem than a distribution problem. The structure of agricultural production had changed more and more over the three years of the war. The largest country estates, which had accounted for 25% of the harvest in the pre-war period, were almost entirely withdrawn from production. Due to the rapid inflation and the rise in labor costs due to the expansion of the war industry, the cultivation of grain became unprofitable for the operators of latifundia . This land was therefore leased to small farmers. The system of small family farms worked excellently in production, but lacked the incentive to sell its products in the cities. While the landowner had direct access to the markets of the cities, the ordinary farmer had to get these first through a line of middlemen, which reduced his profit. If the farmer sold his goods anyway, he received little attractive consideration in return. The needs of the army also resulted in an astronomical rise in prices for all industrially manufactured products. Textiles increased in price by 300% compared to 1913, iron goods by up to 1,000%. Thus, from the harvest of 1917, only 15% of the grain, instead of the 25% usual in the pre-war period, was thrown onto the free market . Since the needs of the cities had increased due to the refugees from the areas occupied by the Germans, this led to the catastrophic shortages of the last year of the Russian war.

Revolutions in Russia

Tsar Nicholas II after his fall

The population was hit hard by the deteriorating economic conditions. The war had resulted in high human casualties, and the majority of the population has meanwhile rejected it. Inflation caused real wages to fall. Strikes and riots were frequent. Tsar Nicholas II , who concentrated fully on the war and left the politics to his wife Alexandra Feodorovna , refused any political liberalization. Numerous ministers who agreed to make concessions to the Duma and the people have been dismissed. This also caused anger in middle-class circles and further weakened the authority of the Tsar.

The hard winter of 1916/17 worsened the supply situation for the population. The state tried to improve this through forced collections and new economic planning. Many industrial workers opposed this; Strikes and riots spread. On February 18th jul. / March 3, 1917 greg. there was a mass riot. The Tsar issued a shooting order to bring the situation under control. However, the soldiers joined the demonstrators and supplied them with weapons. The demonstrators in Petrograd managed to take power. This caused similar incidents in other major Russian cities, such as Moscow . On February 22nd, Jul. / 7th March 1917 greg. The Duma joined the revolution and appointed a provisional committee against the Tsar's dissolution order. Nicholas II wanted to let front troops advance in the direction of Petrograd. However, the army command urged the tsar to resign so that the war could continue and the revolution would not encroach on the field troops.

The power vacuum that had now developed was claimed by numerous workers 'and soldiers' councils as well as by the Duma. The Duma was mainly shaped by bourgeois and liberal forces, while the soviets (councils) were shaped to varying degrees by Mensheviks and Bolsheviks . From the Duma on March 10th July / March 23, 1917 greg. appointed a provisional government under Georgi Lvov , which acted in parallel with the councils.

Lenin , the leader of the Bolsheviks, was transported by the German army command from his exile in Switzerland to Petrograd by train . Rumor has it that he received 40 million gold marks in support. The German Reich hoped for a separate peace from Lenin and the Bolsheviks, who had already rejected the war in 1914. In Petrograd, on April 4th, Lenin wrote Jul. / April 17, 1917 greg. the April theses , which, in addition to the demand for a revolution by the Bolsheviks, also included the demand for an immediate end to the war. This should be done in a peace without annexations and contributions .

The government, which stuck to its war goals, initiated the Kerensky offensive through its war and naval minister Alexander Fyodorowitsch Kerensky , which collapsed relatively quickly. Desertification and informal armistices were becoming increasingly common at the front . An attempted coup in July against the government under Lvov was fought off and Kerensky became head of government. Still, the situation did not calm down.

The Bolsheviks continued to grow in power as the Mensheviks and the Provisional Government failed to improve the situation of the people significantly. This is how the Bolsheviks succeeded in taking power in the Moscow and Petrograd Soviets . Leon Trotsky became chairman of the Petrograd Military Revolutionary Committee. The leaders of the Bolsheviks prepared the revolution and supporters of the Bolsheviks armed themselves. On October 22nd the Revolutionary Committee under Trotsky took over the garrison . On the night of October 25, the so-called October Revolution took place , in which the Bolsheviks occupied strategic points in Petrograd and stormed the Winter Palace, which had served as the seat of the provisional government. The Bolsheviks then took over the entire government.

On November 9th, July / November 22, 1917 greg. Lenin sent a radio message to all of the Russian troops with the demand to negotiate provisional armistices with the Central Powers, since the commander-in-chief of the Russian troops, General Nikolai Duchonin , refused to enter into armistice negotiations with the Central Powers.

As a result of the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks, the Russian Civil War broke out , in which the Entente troops also landed on Russian territory to support the White Army in the fight against the Communists. 2,500 British, 1,500 French and 1,500 Italians took part in the fighting. 70,000 Japanese and 8,000 US soldiers landed in the Russian Far East. France stationed a naval formation in Odessa , but it was withdrawn after an uprising among the sailors .

War year 1918

The peace treaties with Soviet Russia, Romania, Finland and Ukraine

The Soviet delegation under Leon Trotsky is received by German officers
Expansion of the German and Austro-Hungarian occupation areas in May 1918

After a truce for ten days had already been agreed on December 5, 1917 and a longer-term armistice on December 15 between Soviet Russia and the Central Powers, the latter dictated at the beginning of March 1918 after lengthy negotiations, which were initially broken off by the Russian delegation on February 10 to Operation Faustschlag the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty . In January 1918 there had been violent disputes between parts of the civil leadership of the Reich and the OHL (up to and including Hindenburg and Ludendorff's offer of resignation on January 7th), as they could not initially agree on the line to be taken with Russia. In the end, this treaty - through which European Russia was thrown back to its pre-Petrine borders - primarily implemented the concept of war objectives that had been advocated by the majority in the Foreign Office since 1914. The suppression of Russia and German dominance in Eastern Europe should not be established through the direct annexations called for by various interest groups and Ludendorff, but through informal rule over newly created satellite states that are politically and economically bound to Germany. This also offered direct foreign and domestic political advantages: The German commitment to the “right of peoples to self-determination”, expressed in this context by the responsible State Secretary Richard von Kühlmann - to the horror of Austria-Hungary and the OHL - abolished and made possible the relevant propaganda monopoly of the Entente the majority of the Reichstag (cf. peace resolution ) to ratify the Brest-Litovsk Treaty without losing face. Brest-Litowsk laid the foundations for a system of German vassal and client states that promised Berlin direct political, economic and military access “from Murmansk to Baku”. The reparations issue, which was initially excluded, was negotiated in Berlin over the course of the summer, largely excluding the public. Several supplementary agreements were signed here on August 27, under which Russia undertook, among other things, to pay reparations amounting to six billion gold marks and to recognize Georgia's independence . In return, the withdrawal of the German troops behind the Beresina , the Estonian and Livonian borders, was promised.

Even during the Brest-Litovsk negotiations and anticipating their results, a delegation from the Ukrainian Central Na Rada signed a peace treaty with the Central Powers (February 9), through which the country de facto withdrew from the Russian state association. On February 12, the Rada government handed over to the German side the formal request it had requested to intervene in Ukraine and occupy Kiev, which was then controlled by the Bolsheviks . Between February and April, however, German and Austro-Hungarian troops took control of the entire "independent" Ukraine and - in violation of the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty - also occupied Crimea (May 1st Sevastopol ), the entire Donets Basin and on May 8th finally Rostov . The Russian Black Sea Fleet withdrew to Novorossiysk , where most of it was on 17./18. June sank in a hopeless situation. In the course of the occupation, there was considerable friction between the German and Austro-Hungarian command posts, since neither a single high command was created nor - at least in the first few months - the occupation zones were delimited. Both sides initially tried to create facts by advancing rapidly (for example in the "Race to Odessa"). The OHL refused to station Austro-Hungarian troops in Kiev, which had been occupied by German units on March 1. After a few weeks, the imperial and royal troops were assigned to the governorates of Volhynia , Podolia , Cherson and Ekaterinoslav . The dominant influence on Ukrainian politics, however, was exercised solely by the German military in Kiev - primarily the chief of staff of the army group there, Wilhelm Groener . The Ukrainian Central Rada, with which the Central Powers had initially worked against the Soviet Russian government, quickly became a nuisance to the German authorities, who now assessed the body as an inoperative "student convention". On April 28, German officers "in typical Prussian-German manner" - at gunpoint and shouting "Hands up!" - deposed the Ukrainian government supported by the Rada and arrested its ministers. One day later, following German encouragement, a large landowners meeting in the Kiev circus called out a so-called hetmanate under the leadership of the former general Pavlo Skoropadskyj . This puppet government lasted until the withdrawal of German troops in December. Under her aegis, a total of 34,745 wagon loads of food, grain and raw materials had been transported from the Ukraine by the beginning of November 1918 (almost 20,000 to Austria-Hungary, 14,100 to Germany, the rest to Bulgaria and Turkey), and she agreed to pay the occupation costs ready.

Romania also left the war with the Bucharest peace treaty signed on May 7 (the armistice had been agreed on December 9, 1917 in Focșani ). The contract primarily provided for drastic political and economic interventions (leasing of the oil fields to German companies for 90 years, export of agricultural products only to Germany and Austria-Hungary, disguised payment of reparations by Romania, continuation of the occupation, supervising German civil officials in Romanian Ministries). Further German demands - in addition to leasing the port of Constan Consta , the Foreign Office had originally even sought a personal union of Germany and Romania, i.e. the transfer of the Romanian royal crown to Wilhelm II - the Romanians were able to evade, not least because Austria-Hungary, the had initially wanted to secure control of Romania in the same way, which contradicted the extensive Berlin plans. Bulgaria demanded the entire Dobruja and with it the evacuation of Romania from the Black Sea , but this was resolutely rejected by Turkey. In this way, the maximum programs of the Central Powers neutralized each other in the negotiations; Romania got away with it - although it was the only belligerent power to suffer a complete military defeat and was completely occupied by enemy troops - at least in territorial terms, remarkably lightly: Austria-Hungary enforced the cession of some areas in the Carpathian Mountains (the last expansion of the territory of the Danube Monarchy), Bulgaria was given the southern Dobruja, Romania to compensate for this, however, the former Russian governorate of Bessarabia (which even increased its territory).

The empire concluded treaties with Finland and Georgia which were to make these states the northern and southern cornerstones of the planned German territory. On March 7th, several German-Finnish treaties (including a peace treaty) were signed in Berlin, which made Finland politically and economically dependent on Germany. The Belarusian government (see Finnish Civil War ), whose representatives had signed these agreements, returned to Helsinki in April in the wake of German intervention troops (see Finland intervention ). On October 9, 1918, the Finnish state parliament elected Friedrich Karl von Hessen as the Finnish king. Georgia, which declared itself independent on May 26, signed the first of a series of agreements with the Reich two days later in Poti . In June, a small German contingent landed in this city and then occupied Tbilisi . The German troops in Georgia were quickly and significantly reinforced (total strength of 19,000 men in mid-September). In the Caucasus region, the contours of a new German-British front were already emerging in late summer 1918, as British troops were operating on the west bank of the Caspian Sea at the same time and occupied Baku on August 4th .

In the northern Baltic States, whose open or veiled annexation (here, too, a personal union was initially considered) had proven to be unenforceable from a domestic policy perspective, an attempt was made - primarily at the instigation of the OHL - to establish a state dominated by the German minority (see United Baltic Duchy ). In Lithuania, German policy gave the local nationalists more leeway, but still managed to install a Count of Württemberg as King Mindaugaus II . The Saxon royal family also initially claimed the Lithuanian crown.

Decision of war in the West and collapse of the Central Powers

The main purpose of the repeated, urgent interventions of the OHL in the progress of the Brest-Litovsk negotiations at the beginning of 1918 was to free troops as quickly as possible for the decisive battles in the west that had been planned since November 1917. Between late 1917 and November 1918, 63 divisions were added to the Western Front from the east; three more divisions were moved to the Balkans. Between January and August 1918 Austria-Hungary reinforced the Italian front with 25 and the Balkan front with five divisions previously bound in the east. The number of remaining associations was, however, significantly high. On March 21, 1918, at the beginning of the spring offensive on the western front , there were 53 German divisions and 13 independent brigades in the east - a total of more than a million men. The focus of the stationing was the Ukraine, which the OHL also rated as an "artificial structure", which - according to the fear - would "automatically revert to Russia" if the German and Austro-Hungarian occupation forces were reduced too massively. By autumn, however, 25 more divisions were gradually withdrawn, so that the total strength sank to a little more than 500,000 men by the beginning of October (divided between the 8th Army in the Baltic States, the 10th Army in Belarus and Eastern Poland and the Army Group in Kiev) . The Austro-Hungarian occupation army in the Ukraine ( 2nd Army ) had a strength of 200,000 in the summer of 1918, according to other data of 250,000 men.

All German units coming from the Eastern Front were subjected to intensive "patriotic instruction" by special training officers before their deployment in the West, as the OHL, in view of the rapidly increasing number of serious disciplinary offenses since the turn of 1917/18 - unauthorized removal from the troops, desertion, open refusal to give orders - assumed that the immediate impression of the Russian revolution had not been without consequences for the “reliability” of the troops. In September 1918 - just a few weeks before the Kiel sailors' uprising - there were first armed clashes between men and officers in Rowno , Schepetowka , Kiev and Polotsk . In Kharkov , soldiers openly rebelled against the relocation to the western front and raised red flags. The already prepared occupation of Petrograd and Murmansk (see Operation Schlussstein ) was given up at the end of September also because of these developments, as was an operation against Baku planned from Georgia. On October 17, Ludendorff admitted to Max von Baden that the bulk of the German troops in the east could no longer be used for offensive actions and that they still had “a certain degree of resistance”.

On November 13, 1918, two days after the Compiègne armistice , the Soviet Russian government annulled the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty. Eastern Europe, where immediately after the end of the war the lines of the Russian Civil War, nationalistic state establishment or state expansion projects and political and social insurrection movements overlapped, remained largely a war zone until 1920/21.


Russian prisoners after the Battle of Tannenberg

The losses on the Russian side are difficult to determine due to a lack of statistics. Historians estimate the number of deaths at around 1.3 million, which roughly corresponds to the losses suffered by France and Austria-Hungary .

Of around nine million prisoners of war in World War I, the majority of five million were captured on the Eastern Front. Around 2.1 million soldiers of the Central Powers were prisoners of war in Russia. The majority of them were soldiers of Austria-Hungary. Around 140,000 Germans and around 80,000 Turks and Bulgarians were in Russian captivity. The death rate among prisoners in Russia was the highest among all belligerent powers at 20% due to epidemics and poor supplies. Around 2.4-3.1 million Russian soldiers became prisoners of war with the Central Powers. The overall death rate among prisoners was around 5-8%. Within the captivity of war, the Russian side preferred prisoners of war to non-Slavic prisoners for political reasons, while prisoners of war of the western powers were preferred in Germany.

The “Forgotten” Front: On the Eastern Front Historiography of the First World War

German military cemetery near Walozhyn in Belarus

The historiography of the Eastern Front of the First World War takes up little space in the literature on the years 1914 to 1918. In descriptions of German Ostpolitik, for example, the Upper East area was only mentioned briefly or it was ignored entirely. Other events such as the war of the Central Powers against Romania have been almost completely forgotten.

The British Norman Stone wrote the first comprehensive and significant account of what happened on the Eastern Front. His book The Eastern Front 1914–1917 , published in 1975, emphasizes the importance of the battles on the Eastern Front for the overall military course of the war. Stone succeeded in drawing some interesting conclusions: he did not limit himself in his presentation to a reconstruction of the events of the war in the east, but questioned the doctrines that had been valid until then. So Stone doubts the economic backwardness of the Russian Empire. According to his evidence, the tsarist empire was in an unprecedented economic boom. For Stone, Russia's weakness lies in its outdated administration. This was due to the supply difficulties and an inefficient army command. Stone's presentation is completely silent about the areas conquered and occupied by the Central Powers.

Verdun ”, “ Somme ”, “trench warfare”, “positional and gas warfare” are still characteristic catchphrases and at the same time the first associations with the First World War. However, these only describe the west. War novels like Erich Maria Remarques Nothing New in the West continued to shape this image and so the Eastern Front was not the focus of Western World War II researchers. The journalist Sven Felix Kellerhoff gets to the heart of the problem with the formulation "but who knows that the relatively highest loss rates of this slaughter of peoples were by no means in the trench warfare in Belgium and eastern France, but in the Carpathian battle ?"

Since Stone's remarks at the latest, it should have become clear that the war in the east was markedly different from the events on the western front. When the fronts had frozen in the west, warfare still prevailed in the east. The reasons for this lie in the poor communication possibilities and the poor transport connections on the eastern front. As a result, broken gaps in the lines of defense could not be filled as quickly as was the case in France. The spatial extension of the eastern front with several thousand front kilometers, quite apart from the differences in landscape, contrasted with the western front and its more than 800 kilometers front line.

Only in the more recent and up-to-date western presentations and research on the First World War does the eastern front come into focus again. The Military History Research Office (MGFA) in Potsdam held a conference on “The Forgotten Front” in August 2004. Leading military historians from eight countries came together there. The American historian (of Lithuanian descent) Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius was also present at this conference. In 2002, with his book War Lands in the East about the Upper East region, he provided the first comprehensive western account of the German occupation in the Baltic States during the First World War, thus closing a research gap.

In the book and some articles written shortly afterwards, he not only describes the nature and character of the German military administration in the land of Ober Ost, but also tries to analyze the causes of the change in the German image of the East and to analyze the lines of connection between the ideas of the military administration of Ober Ost and those of the later Nazi elite to trace. Liulevicius also deals with this topic in the Spiegel article The Poisoned Victory . The attempt to draw a line of continuity at the time of the Nazi regime is likely to provoke some reactions in historical scholarship, especially since Liulevicius is trying to build a bridge over the period between 1918 and 1933. He sees the hidden legacy of the First World War in the experience of the German soldiers on the Eastern Front.

A weighty problem with the explanations regarding the soldiers' perception of the front and the change in the categories in which the East was put (country and people vs. space and people) lies in the one-sided source base of the work “Warland” in the East. Liulevicius apparently mainly takes into account the diaries and memoirs of the military in higher ranks. Field post letters from soldiers, for example, are almost completely missing. As a consequence, the resulting image must be viewed as elitist.

In places Liulevicius' work runs the risk of adopting a national-Lithuanian view of the German occupation, as can be found in other works on Lithuanian history. This is shown repeatedly in the choice of words when he writes of “pathological excesses of power” (p. 217) and a “ruthless hunt for taxes” (p. 87). Such and similar formulations do not necessarily give the work more objectivity. At the same time, the injustices that were committed against the population of Lithuania by the German occupiers must not be played down.

As the historian Eberhard Demm noted, Liulevicius also dispensed with Polish and French sources and representations. An example is the extensive 700-page contemporary documentation La Lithuanie sous le joug allemand 1915–1918. Le plan annexioniste allemand en Lithuanie by C. Rivas (pseudonym for Yvonne Pouvreau) should be mentioned.

Earlier studies on Upper East represent the works of the Lithuanian historian Abba Strazhas. In his monograph German Ostpolitik in the First World War. The Ober Ost case 1915–1917 also took Strazhas' special account of the Lithuanian side of the occupation. Another noteworthy article by Strazhas is "The Land Oberost and Its Place in Germany's Ostpolitik 1915–1918". Strazhas' remarks were often taken over in later written works on the history of Lithuania. His portrayals can be seen as the continuation of statements made in Fritz Fischer's controversial work Griff nach die Weltmacht regarding German Ostpolitik. Fischer describes Germany's annexationist intentions in the Baltic States. Furthermore, it even establishes a certain continuity between the goals of the German Empire and those of the National Socialist regime. Such lines are not without controversy in historical studies and sparked a discussion about continuity in history.

In articles such as The Lithuanian Regional Council as an instrument of German Ostpolitik , Strazhas sometimes takes a national Lithuanian perspective, which authors such as Liulevicius have apparently taken over from secondary literature without criticism. But where is the problem of the Eastern Front and especially of Upper East as a practically blank slate in historical studies? The shadow of the Second World War long lay over that of the First. The Cold War and the resulting difficult access to the archives must also be mentioned as a decisive criterion. Furthermore, for many years the focus of all research was in the eastern area of ​​the Russian Revolution. Under Lenin, the military cemeteries of the tsarist empire were destroyed and so an attempt was made to erase certain events from the historical consciousness of the people. In the foreword to the second revised version of his book , Norman Stone made the following remarks on the relationship between politics and history in relation to the East in the period after World War II :

“Whatever you said about the Tsarist Russian army might give you trouble. If you wrote in a positive, patriotic way about it, you might offend against the Communist orthodoxy, by which everything Tsarist was condemned. If, on the other hand, you concentrated on the negative side, you could offend against the nationalist line which emerged with Stalin and which flourished under Brezhnev . Even the obvious sources were quite difficult to obtain; I was told, some years later, that The Eastern Front was listed in a German catalog, but could not be read without permission. [...] the subject was still, in the seventies, taboo. "

“Anything that was said about the army of Tsarist Russia could get you into trouble. If you wrote about it in a positive, patriotic way, you could break communist orthodoxy, which condemned everything tsarist. On the other hand, if one focused on the negative aspects, one could violate the nationalist party line that arose with Stalin and blossomed under Brezhnev. Even the obvious sources were difficult to access; a few years later I was told that The Eastern Front was listed in an (East) German catalog, but could not be read without permission. [...] the topic was still taboo in the seventies. "

The Russian historian Igor Narskij states that the First World War in Russia was a forgotten war. The war was seen by its contemporaries as part of a seven year catastrophe leading up to the end of the Civil War in 1922. In the conflict officially enforced by the Soviet Union, the revolution and civil war dominate. There were publications about the war within the émigré community, but these were mostly the memoirs of leaders of the White Movement, which was defeated in the civil war. Numerous archives, including a central archive with soldiers' letters, have not yet been evaluated. Narsky makes the massive experience of military mass violence and discipline as a main factor in the violence of the civil war, distinguishes a personal continuity between former front soldiers and members of the state repressive organs of the early Soviet Union.

See also

Individual evidence

  1. Reichsarchiv (ed.): The World War 1914–1918. Volume 2: The Liberation of East Prussia. Berlin 1925, p. 39 f.
  2. Hans Ehlert, Michael Epkenhans, Gerhard P. Groß (ed.): The Schlieffenplan. Analyzes and documents. Paderborn / Munich / Vienna / Zurich 2006, p. 88 as well as John CG Röhl: The military-political decision-making process in Germany on the eve of the First World War. In: John CG Röhl: Kaiser, Hof und Staat. Wilhelm II and German politics. 2nd Edition. Munich 2007, pp. 175-202, pp. 201 f.
  3. See Angelow, Jürgen, Kalkül und Prestige. The dual alliance on the eve of the First World War, Cologne-Weimar-Vienna 2000, p. 375.
  4. "When Bethmann claims to have declared war on Russia under the pressure of the military situation, I look in vain for words to express my astonishment at his behavior." Letter from the former chief quartermaster Georg Graf von Waldersee to Gottlieb von Jagow from October 8, 1920. Quoted from Willibald Gutsche, Baldur Kaulisch (Ed.): Reigning methods of German imperialism 1897/98 to 1917. Documents on domestic and foreign policy strategy and tactics of the ruling classes of the German Reich. Berlin 1977, p. 189.
  5. See basically Fritz Fischer: War of Illusions. German politics from 1911 to 1914. Düsseldorf 1969, p. 542 ff.
  6. See Fritz Stern: Bethmann Hollweg and the war. The limits of responsibility. Tübingen 1968, p. 20.
  7. ^ Willibald Gutsche: Sarajevo 1914. From assassination to world war. Berlin 1984, p. 142.
  8. Quoted from Gutsche, Kaulisch, Herrschaftsmethods, p. 187. Italics in the original.
  9. See Dieter Groh: Negative Integration and Revolutionary Attentism. German social democracy on the eve of the First World War. Frankfurt am Main / Berlin / Vienna 1973, p. 625 ff.
  10. Quoted from Lüder Meyer-Arndt: The July Crisis 1914. How Germany stumbled into the First World War. Cologne / Weimar / Vienna 2006, p. 266.
  11. Joachim Petzold and others: Germany in the First World War. Volume 3: November 1917 to November 1918. Berlin 1969, p. 83.
  12. See Willibald Gutsche among others: Germany in the First World War. Volume 2: January 1915 to October 1917. Berlin 1968, p. 197 ff.
  13. See Holger Afflerbach: Falkenhayn. Political thinking and acting in the German Empire. Munich 1994, p. 294 ff.
  14. Abba Strazhas: German Ostpolitik in the First World War. The Ober Ost case 1915–1917. Wiesbaden 1993, p. 261.
  15. See Fritz Fischer: Griff nach der Weltmacht. The war policy of imperial Germany 1914/18. 3rd, improved edition. Düsseldorf 1964, pp. 141ff. as well as Gutsche, World War Volume 2, p. 183 f.
  16. See Gutsche, World War Volume 2, p. 186.
  17. See in detail Zbyněk A. Zeman: Germany and the Revolution in Russia 1915-1918. Documents from the Archives of the German Foreign Ministry. London / New York / Toronto 1958 and Zbyněk A. Zeman, Winfried B. Scharlau: The Merchant of Revolution. The Life of Alexander Israel Helphand (Parvus). London / New York / Toronto 1965 and Fischer, Weltmacht, p. 173 ff.
  18. ^ Rex A. Wade: The Russian Revolution 1917. Cambridge 2005, p. 194. According to Semion Lyandres, the only transfer of German funds that can be documented by sources took place in August 1917, when the Bolsheviks' office in Stockholm came through the Swiss socialist (and German agents) Carl Moor received money - which, however, never reached Russia, but was used to finance the third conference of the Zimmerwald Left in Stockholm a month later. Lyandres also considers the allegations first made in July 1917 by the Russian Provisional Government that the Bolsheviks were financed on a large scale by German authorities through Helphand-Parvus to be false. See Semion Lyandres: The Bolsheviks' "German Gold" Revisited. An Inquiry into the 1917 Accusations. (= The Carl Beck Papers in Russian & East European Studies. No. 1106). Pittsburgh 1995, pp. 102, 104.
  19. Most recently comprehensive in Elisabeth Heresch: Secret files Parvus. German money and the October Revolution. Munich 2000 and - including the attempt to indirectly rehabilitate the Sisson documents , which have been known for decades as forgeries - Gerhard Schiesser, Jochen Trauptmann: Russian Roulette. German money and the October Revolution. Berlin 1998.
  20. ^ Zbyněk A. Zeman: The collapse of the Habsburg Empire 1914–1918. Munich 1963, p. 12.
  21. Manfried Rauchsteiner : The First World War and the End of the Habsburg Monarchy , Vienna, 2013, pp. 51–59.
  22. Manfried Rauchsteiner: The First World War and the End of the Habsburg Monarchy , Vienna, 2013, pp. 63–73.
  23. Manfried Rauchsteiner: The First World War and the End of the Habsburg Monarchy , Vienna, 2013, pp. 63–73.
  24. Manfried Rauchsteiner: The First World War and the End of the Habsburg Monarchy , Vienna, 2013, p. 166f
  25. Quoted from the Reichsarchiv (ed.): The World War 1914–1918. Volume 2: The Liberation of East Prussia. Berlin 1925, p. 45.
  26. Lawrence Sondhaus: Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf. Architect of the Apocalypse. Boston / Leiden / Cologne 2000, p. 154 f.
  27. ^ See Reichsarchiv, Befreiung Ostpreußens, p. 32ff., 336.
  28. See Helmut Otto, Karl Schmiedel: The First World War. Military historical summary. 3rd, completely revised and expanded edition. Berlin 1977, p. 84.
  29. David Stevenson: 1914-1918. The First World War. Düsseldorf 2006, p. 95.
  30. Quoted from Fritz Klein et al: Germany in the First World War. Volume 1: Preparation, unleashing and course of the war until the end of 1914. Berlin 1968, p. 326.
  31. Wilhelm Groener: Memoirs. Göttingen 1957, p. 201.
  32. See Otto, Schmiedel, World War, pp. 105, 119.
  33. Boris Khavkin : Russia against Germany. The Eastern Front of the First World War in the years 1914 to 1915 in Gerhard P. Groß (Hrsg.): The forgotten front. The East 1914/1915 - Event, Effect, Aftermath , Paderborn, 2006, pp. 83–85.
  34. Gerhard Hirschfeld, Gerd Krumeich, Irina Renz (eds.): Encyclopedia First World War. Ferdinand Schöningh, Paderborn 2003, p. 610.
  35. Manfried Rauchsteiner: The First World War and the End of the Habsburg Monarchy , Vienna, 2013, pp. 569–571.
  36. Winfried Baumgart: Deutsche Ostpolitik 1918. From Brest-Litowsk to the end of the First World War. Vienna / Munich 1966, p. 13ff .; Fritz Fischer: Reach for world power. The war policy of imperial Germany 1914/18. 3rd, improved edition. Düsseldorf 1964, pp. 155ff., 627ff .; Joachim Petzold and others: Germany in the First World War. Volume 3: November 1917 to November 1918. Berlin 1969, pp. 101 ff., 118 ff.
  37. Baumgart, Ostpolitik, p. 93.
  38. See Petzold, Germany, p. 385.
  39. See Petzold, Germany, p. 187.
  40. See Baumgart, Ostpolitik, p. 120. On German occupation policy in the Ukraine, see above all the presentation by Peter Borowsky: Deutsche Ukrainepolitik 1918. Lübeck / Hamburg 1970, which, unlike the work of the conservative diplomacy historian Baumgart, also focuses on fundamental economic calculations comes in.
  41. Baumgart, Ostpolitik, p. 122.
  42. See Baumgart, Ostpolitik, p. 129 f.
  43. ^ Petzold, Germany, p. 217.
  44. See Baumgart, Ostpolitik, p. 128.
  45. See Baumgart, Ostpolitik, p. 127 f.
  46. See Baumgart, Ostpolitik, p. 150.
  47. See Petzold, Germany, pp. 203 ff.
  48. See Manfred Menger: The Finland Policy of German Imperialism 1917-1918. Berlin 1974, p. 140 ff.
  49. Wolfdieter Bihl: The Caucasus Policy of the Central Powers. Part 2: The period of attempted Caucasian statehood 1917–1918. Vienna / Cologne / Weimar 1992, p. 76.
  50. See overall Werner Basler: Germany's policy of annexation in Poland and the Baltic States 1914–1918. Berlin 1962.
  51. Stevenson, World War, p. 473 cites slightly different figures (47 divisions on March 21).
  52. Quoted from Baumgart, Ostpolitik, p. 148.
  53. See Baumgart, Ostpolitik, p. 149 (footnote 160) and Otto, Schmiedel, World War, p. 413.
  54. See Otto, Schmiedel, World War, p. 402.
  55. See Petzold, Germany, p. 101.
  56. See Otto, Schmiedel, World War, p. 413 and Baumgart, Ostpolitik, p. 150, 344.
  57. Quoted from Baumgart, Ostpolitik, p. 150.
  58. “The 'post-war history', it turns out, is not inferior to the world war, especially with a view to Eastern Europe (...) in cross-border violence." Michael Geyer : Between war and post-war - the German revolution 1918/19 in the sign blocked transnationality. In: Alexander Gallus (Ed.): The forgotten revolution of 1918/19. Göttingen 2010, pp. 187–222, p. 188.
  59. Reinhard Nachtigal: The prisoner-of-war losses on the Eastern Front, an overview of the statistics and problems on the home fronts 1914/15. in Gerhard P. Groß (ed.): The forgotten front. The East 1914/1915 - Event, Effect, Aftermath , Paderborn, 2006, pp. 201–215.
  60. ^ Norman Stone : The Eastern Front 1914-1917. Penguin Books , London 1998, ISBN 0-14-026725-5 , p. 7.
  61. Igor Narskij: War reality and experience of war Russian soldiers in Gerhard P. Large: The Forgotten Front, The East 1914/1915 - event effect, after effect , Paderborn, 2006, pp 258-261.


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This article was added to the list of excellent articles on March 27, 2006 in this version .