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Total learning: 15 lessons Time: 1 semester

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Week 8. Russia’s North-Western Borderlands: From “War Land” to Ethnic Mobilization under German Occupation

This class will examine the other side of the story, i.e., the fascinating experiment of the German military administration of Russia’s North-Western borderlands, known as the Ober Ost. Managing the vast territory comprising most of today’s Lithuania (plus parts of current Belarus and Latvia) in a ‘rational’ and efficient manner was as much a matter of economic exploitation as of an ambitious project of German ‘civilizing mission’ known as ‘the Kultur program.’ The class will discuss the partial success and ultimate failure of this bold attempt at reshaping the borderlands into the German image, which also entailed a complex, uneasy and profoundly unequal partnership with the local population. The scenarios for the future of this territory were a part of the politics of ethnicity applied by the German authorities, which overturned the former linguistic and cultural policies of the Russian Empire while trying to ‘play the national card.’ The discussion will also focus on the agency of the national activists ‘from below,’ mostly emphasizing the role of the refugee and émigré organizations in mobilizing ethnicity and ‘nationalizing’ the masses. Last but not least, the class will deal with the limits and ultimate collapse of this project of empire-building by the German military, as well as with its unintended consequences for the ‘politicization’ of the local population.


  • Liulevicius, War Land on the Eastern Front, Introduction (1-11) and chapter 4 (“The Kultur Program”), 113-150.
  • Balkelis, War, Revolution, and Nation-Making in Lithuania, 1914-1923, chapter 1 (“State Failure, Social Disaster, and Refugee Politics During the Great War”), 14-34, and chapter 2 (“Breaking from Isolation: War and Nation-Building”), 35-56.