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Thursday, February 15, 2024

Op-ed: German expansionism and slave labour during World War One

More than a century ago, Europe saw in its history the greatest war fought on its land stretching from western to eastern and northern to southern Europe. The Germans played a monumental role but came out defeated. They had however, great expansionist plans.

It was not until 3 March 1918, that the Bolsheviks were compelled to surrender to Germany in writing, through a peace treaty signed at Brest-Litovsk. Two weeks before on 18 February 1918, Ludendorff ordered a German invasion all along the Eastern front, so as to press home his point to Lenin. The one commander of the First World War who had been threatening to match Ludendorff, came not from the West, but from the East. He was the 57-year-old Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich, a popular and respected Russian general, six feet six inches tall, broad-shouldered, and who had devoted his life to the Tsar’s Army.

In August 1914 the Grand Duke was appointed to the Supreme Command of all Russian forces. In this position he proved to be “a ruthless, iron-willed opponent who had held his armies together admirably, and whose strategic ideas had often been daring and brilliant”.

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Tsar Nicholas II committed a grave blunder the following year by firing the Grand Duke, on 5 September 1915, and then compounded the error by appointing himself to the Supreme Command. When news of the Grand Duke’s dismissal reached German Ober Ost headquarters at Lötzen, it was welcomed heartily by Ludendorff, Hindenburg and Hoffmann.

With the Grand Duke’s exit, the Russian Empire was not only stripped of its most able commander but, subsequently, every defeat suffered by Russia could be blamed on the Tsar. As would be the case. The Grand Duke’s sacking was a factor in the Tsarist regime’s fall 18 months later.

In the early 20th century, there were very significant numbers of Jewish citizens resident across central and eastern Europe – such as in Warsaw (Polish capital), Kovno (central Lithuania), Vilnius (Lithuanian capital) and Grodno (western Belarus); cities which all fell to the Germans in the early autumn of 1915.

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These cities’ populaces comprised of 25% Jewish people or more, and were occupied by the Germans for three years. Ludendorff may have been anti-Semitic but, as opposed to the Nazis, he did not order the mass persecution or killings of Jewish or indeed Slavic people, which lays bare how much more extreme the Hitler dictatorship was.

Ludendorff and Hindenburg were concerned primarily with extracting the livestock and natural resources from the conquered territories. The German authors, Jens Thiel and Christian Westerhoff, observed how a main priority for Germany’s warlords in the occupied regions, such as the Baltics, “was the exploitation of the extensive agricultural and forestry resources for the German war effort”.

In September 1916, Ludendorff issued a compulsory labour law. For the remainder of the war every German male, aged between 15 and 60, was employed in the service of the state.

Read more: How close did Ludendorff get to achieving his desire of Greater Fatherland

He ensured that a sizeable percentage of women were sent to the munitions factories to work. The labour law eased Germany’s manpower crisis, while female munitions workers performed a role in the increased output of ammunition and guns for the German war machine.

Ludendorff was bringing home the concept of total war to Germany. In addition, the general implemented plans to raise the birth rate, he improved housing standards, reduced the rate of venereal diseases, encouraged rural resettlement, and counteracted the effective Allied propaganda.

On 13 September 1916 and again on 3 October, Ludendorff ordered the governor-generals of Warsaw and Belgium to institute forced labour, so as to further assist in alleviating manpower shortages. Germany’s utilisation of, what was effectively slave labour, pre-dated Ludendorff’s rise to supreme power by about a year; but he increased it as the conflict entered its latter stages.

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The slave labourers consisted mostly of prisoners of war, along with Polish and Belgian “help workers”, including some thousands of Jewish males from those countries. In fact “Jews were over-represented in forced labour”, but the evidence is lacking whether this was because of prejudice, or due to high levels of unemployment among Jewish men at the time.

Conditions were substandard in the labour camps, with severe illness and mortality rates. Other colonial powers like Britain, France and Belgium had long exploited slave labour on a larger scale than Germany, such as in their African colonies, while during the war Tsarist Russia inflicted slave labour upon civilians in occupied Galicia.

The punishing British naval embargo against Germany and its ally Austria-Hungary, was imposed from August 1914 until eight months after the war, when it was finally lifted in July 1919.

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This blockade was implemented with the intention to derail Germany’s war economy, and to harm non-combatants. Directly due to the embargo’s effects, hundreds of thousands of German civilians slowly starved to death, most of them women, children and the elderly (death toll figures range from 424,000 to 763,000).

The British blockade also killed an estimated 467,000 civilians in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Those suffering the least were the German and Austro-Hungarian troops, who were relatively well fed in the occupied zones.

On 19 December 1917 at a Crown Council conference in Kreuznach, western Germany, Ludendorff expounded at length on his final peace terms to the new Bolshevik Russia. The Russian Army was now finished as a proper fighting force, their troops returning home in droves.

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Listening to Ludendorff hammer out his demands against Russia were the Kaiser, Hindenburg, Foreign Secretary Richard von Kühlmann, and the 74-year-old Chancellor Georg von Hertling.

Ludendorff was implacably set on taking a massive chunk out of the former Russian Empire’s western flank, which he was in the process of absorbing into the Reich. It included regions stretching from the Baltics a thousand miles southward to the Black Sea.

The German military leadership coveted the oil, timber, mineral deposits and grain from these regions, which would guarantee that Germany could easily withstand a British blockade in a future conflict.

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While Ludendorff was speaking, Foreign Secretary von Kühlmann interrupted him, protesting against the severity of his terms against Russia. Ludendorff had little time for the cultured von Kühlmann, brusquely rejecting his arguments for “a peaceful conciliation with Russia”.

Von Kühlmann turned to the 70-year-old Hindenburg, who had fallen sound asleep in an armchair by the fire, as had Chancellor von Hertling. Von Kühlmann shook the Field Marshal awake but Hindenburg, slowly stirring himself, staunchly backed Ludendorff’s views.

Less than a fortnight later on New Year’s Day 1918, after being very reluctantly persuaded, Ludendorff’s former deputy Max Hoffmann expressed his views to the Kaiser on “the Polish question”, i.e., the extent of Germany’s imperialist policies regarding Poland.

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Hoffmann, a more moderate figure than Ludendorff, proposed a German-Polish border not that dissimilar to today’s frontier. He could see no point in coercing millions of discontented Poles into the Fatherland, and the Kaiser agreed enthusiastically with Hoffmann’s ideas.

The following morning of 2 January 1918, at another Crown Council meeting – where Ludendorff, Hindenburg and Hoffmann were in attendance – the Kaiser strode gaily into the room, and outlined precisely on his map where the German border with Poland should fall, swiftly attributing the proposal to Hoffmann.

Ludendorff could scarcely believe what he was hearing, and he then became very angry. His face turned pink, purple, his neck began to swell and the veins were enlarged on his forehead. Hoffmann was watching Ludendorff with quiet fascination.

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Ludendorff vehemently protested against the Kaiser receiving advice through separate channels, declaring that it undermined all military discipline. He criticised Hoffmann’s suggestions root and branch, and insisted that they be rejected immediately.

Ludendorff said that he now wanted to make representations of his own, relating to German intentions via Poland, which were expansionist and the opposite to Hoffmann’s views.

Hindenburg then nodded his giant head approvingly to reinforce Ludendorff’s position, and the Kaiser, completely taken aback, hastily reassessed things and accepted the warlords’ demands. Ludendorff never forgave Hoffmann for going behind his back, and thereafter he would communicate with him only through his Chief of Operations Max Bauer.

Shane Quinn has contributed on a regular basis to Global Research for almost two years and has had articles published with American news outlets People’s World and MintPress News, Morning Star in Britain, and Venezuela’s Orinoco Tribune. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.