The following essay submitted to the 2023 Colin Hardy Memorial Prize was the first runner up. It is by Arthur Beresford Jones, age 17, attending the Stephen Perse Foundation, Cambridge.

The Eastern Front of the First World War is an often overlooked aspect of the war. While the Western Front arguably entailed the largest and most destructive battles and cost to human life, the importance of the Eastern conflict in forming the current borders of Europe should not be understated. The conflict saw the disintegration of all three great Eastern and Central European superpowers, allowing components of these empires to become independent nation states. In this essay, I will examine relationships between ethnic components of the three main powers on the Eastern front; the Russian, German and Austro-Hungarian empires. I aim to explore whether the war caused more tension or more unity between ethnic components and their respective empires, including Germans in Russia, Serbs in Austro-Hungary, Jews in Germany and Russia, and Poles in all three. Indications of unity include any examples of willing cooperation between distinct components and their governments, while tension could involve conflict or lack of willing cooperation.

Poland is perhaps the most significant example of a nationality under the control of imperial powers, as by the outbreak of war in 1914, it found itself as the front on which the three Empires fought. Understanding the background of Poland’s role in the conflict is key to determining whether it caused tension or unity, as it ultimately varied depending on how each empire had treated its Polish subjects before 1914. Therefore, it must be considered that historically Polish lands were split between the three empires by 1914. To the West, Poland was controlled by the Central Powers; Germany and Austria-Hungary. The Germans administered much of North-West Poland, including all of the Baltic coastline, the Austro-Hungarians controlled part of the south, and the Russians ruled much of the East. Previous to the outbreak of war, the Poles had suffered various forms of persecution from all three occupiers. The Germans pursued a policy of Germanisation from 1871, introducing what was essentially an apartheid, with bans on Polish language and religion, and colonisation of Polish land with Germans. Similarly, the Russians engaged in colonisation and Russification in Polish territories, with Russian writers (including the great Dostoyevsky[1]) portraying the archaic and dangerously democratic nature of the Polish people in order to justify repressive policies. Under the Austro-Hungarians, the Poles enjoyed a far greater degree of autonomy, largely due to the empire’s multiethnic traditions. Polish culture developed in the Austro-Hungarian partition, with Kraków and Lwów becoming cultural and political capitals. Nevertheless, the Polish people displayed a lack of unity and there was an underlying tension with their Imperial rulers prior to the War, with numerous uprisings in all partitions, including the Greater Poland Uprising of 1848 against the Germans, the 1815 uprisings against Russian rule and the participation of Poland in the 1848 revolutions against Austria-Hungary alongside other nations. Therefore, by the declaration of war in  1914, Poland's relationship with these empires was one of tension rather than unity.

In the case of Poland’s relationship with the German empire, it is clear that tensions were exacerbated, despite some examples of cooperation between the nationalities. Initially, the Germans lost no time in invading and occupying vast expanses of the Russian partition, while the Russians withdrew their military. German occupation actions drew increased displeasure from the Polish population, as their brutal actions increased in frequency. A key example was the destruction of the cultural and historical city of Kalisz by German troops during August 1914. A large number of civilians were killed, the city was reduced to rubble, and the vast majority of the city’s 65,000 pre-war population fled2. The Polish press reported extensively on the event, and it became symbolic in Russia and Poland of the brutality and barbarism of the Germans. This greatly influenced Polish opinion towards the German Empire, and many Poles chose to fight with the Polish Armed forces in the East, rather than serve in the German Imperial army. Furthermore, from 1917, the Germans increased tensions with their Polish subjects when they began a policy of ethnic cleansing and colonisation in the so-called “Polish border strip”, situated between Poland and Germany. This saw the expulsion of around three million Polish inhabitants in accordance with the Lebensraum policy, which aimed to carve out living space for the German people from Eastern territories3. Such a policy was obviously at the cost of the ethnic Poles who lived on the land, and it added significantly to the sentiment among them that the Germans were brutal enemies. Nevertheless, examples of unity between the Poles and Germans can be found throughout the war. Significantly, the number of Poles serving in the Imperial German army rose from 40,000 before the war to around 850,000 during the conflict - more than were fighting in the Russian and Austrian armies, showing that many Poles remained loyal to Imperial Germany. Moreover, the Germans, along with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, created the Regency Kingdom of Poland, the first independent Polish state after centuries of partition. However, such indications of German and Polish Unity were soon proved to be surface level, as the Germans found their Polish conscripts to be reluctant and often unwilling to show loyalty to the German Empire, as shown by the Oath Crisis of 1917, where the initially German-aligned Polish Legions switched allegiance to the Entente powers. Furthermore, the initially independent Regency Kingdom of Poland ultimately became a puppet state of the German Empire, entirely dependent on it politically and financially. Overall, as a result of the colonial ambitions and brutality of the German’s toward their Polish subjects throughout the war, there was an increase in tension rather than unity.

The extent to which the Poles and their Russian imperial rulers became more unified or hostile due to the war is harder to assess. On one hand, the Russian Empire made very significant moves to ensure the loyalty of their Polish subjects, and even to win the loyalty of Poles within the German and Austrian Empires. The most significant Russian action to this end was an appeal made on August 1 1914 by the Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich addressed to the Polish people. The appeal promised to create a reunified Polish nation with a degree of self-governance, something which had not existed since the 18th century. Furthermore, the Russians proposed internal administration, religious freedom and the use of Polish in government and schooling for the Polish state, which appealed greatly to the Poles in all partitions, who had experienced suppression of Catholicism and use of Polish from all three of their Imperial rulers2. Significantly, Poles made up several regiments of the Imperial Russian army, with around 600,000 Poles serving, displaying their loyalty to the empire and Tsar. Duma President Mikhail Rodzianko showed indications of Russian intentions to strengthen unity between the two peoples with invocation of Slavic brotherhood against the barbarous Germans. However, to many Poles, the Russian proclamation was hollow. They had made no promise for a Polish state truly independent from Russia, as the Grand Duke had envisaged a future Poland existing “under the Russian sceptre”. Polish nationalists such as leader of the Polish legions Józef Piłsudski issued an opposing appeal to his people, stating that “you cannot be a loyal Tsarist subject and a good Pole; you cannot serve both God and the Devil.” Such sentiments were held by many Polish people, whose experiences of Russian imperialism and suppression, coupled with their destruction of Polish homes and churches in Galicia throughout the war, made the prospect of loyalty to the Russians during the conflict unpleasant, not to mention the threat of long term Russian rule. Overall, much like the Germans, the Russians failed to achieve unity with the Poles during the war. Their attempts to this end acted in some ways to increase tension by making the Poles increasingly distrustful of the Russians, who would ransack Polish property in occupied territories, while alluding to the “Slavic brotherhood”. As Piłsudski argued, while the Germans had been destructive in Poland, they were at least clear about their intentions. In his words,“Better an honest and open enemy than a false and two-faced friend” (2)

Much like the Poles, the Jews found themselves split between the warring empires. While the Jews’ role in the war didn’t necessarily have a formative effect on the borders of modern Europe, it nonetheless had a profound impact on the perceptions of Jews in European society. For example, the fabricated ‘stab in the back’ myth, which played a key role in forming the anti-Semitic doctrines of the Nazis, had its origins in the war, and the antisemitism of the 1910s. Large Jewish communities existed in Germany and Austria-Hungary, but by far the largest was in Russia. Millions of Jews lived throughout the empire, concentrated primarily in the ‘Pale of Settlement’, mainly in modern-day Ukraine, an area to which the majority of the Jewish population was forcibly restricted. While the Jews were a successful and creative community before the war, with many artists, businessmen and politicians being of Jewish descent, they faced antisemitism in the form of state-endorsed pogroms which pushed a large number to abandon Russia entirely. However, despite these tensions pre-war, the conflict acted in some ways as an opportunity for Russian Jews to prove their loyalty to their country and Tsar. Upon the outbreak of war, the Russo-Jewish leader Naftali Fridman strongly reasserted the loyalty of the Empire’s Jews, with considerable effort being made to re-educate the population on the Jewish people and culture. This education campaign was endorsed by the popular Russian writer, Maxim Gorky, and sought to reaffirm a sense of unity between the Jews and the wider Russian population. Around 450,000 Jewish soldiers served the Russian Empire during the war, fighting alongside their Slavic compatriots, by far the largest Jewish component of any army during the conflict. (4)

However, despite indications of unity within the Russian army, antisemitism was still rampant throughout the Russian state, including among the highest ranks of government. The Tsar Nicholas himself, along with his ministers, saw the Jews as profiteers and untrustworthy, and while he didn’t actively encourage it, he offered no opposition to the barbaric treatment of the Galician Jews by the Russian army in territory occupied during the end of 19142. Homes were torched, and there were reports of Cossacks using whips against old people and children in driving them from their homes. The Russian Chief of Staff from 1914 to 1915, Nikolai Yanushkevich, held an obsession with the danger of the Jews, and expelled all the Jews he could in occupied areas by force, leaving them to wander freezing winter roads, and flee to the Russian interior. During May 1915 alone, around 200,000 Jews were expelled from the provinces of Kovno and Kurland. One minister commented on how “we cannot fight a war against Germany and at the same time wage war against the Jews”2. The Russian army’s actions were seen by Jews both within Russia and abroad as indicative of the deep rooted antisemitism which had manifested in countless pogroms since the Middle Ages. It was confirmation that for Jews, no amount of loyal service or patriotism would earn the trust and respect of their fellow Russians, so deep was the hatred shown by the army’s actions in Galicia. However, despite the tensions that were still prevalent between the Jewish and Russian peoples, many Russian ministers took a pragmatic approach, acknowledging the strength of a Jewish ally in the war. Even the most radical antisemites, such as the far-right Duma deputy Pavel Krupenskii, recognised that “it is now necessary for the good of the homeland to make concessions to the Jews”2. To this end, the war made unity a necessity for the Russians, as they viewed the Jews as a great international power, meaning hostile policy towards them would weaken their country. This prompted the government to attempt to switch the xenophobic rhetoric of antisemitism to stoking anti-German sentiment, encouraging the public to invest their hatred and anger not towards Jews, but towards the successful German-descended farmers. While this didn’t necessarily increase unity, it can be argued that it served to decrease the tension between the Jews and Russians, as the public would be influenced to be more tolerant of their Jewish compatriots.

In Germany, while Jews hadn’t faced antisemitism to the same extent as in Russia pre-war, there still existed considerable discrimination and inequality. Jews were barred from governmental positions and officer ranks in many German states, including in Prussia, however states such as Bavaria took a far more liberal approach. In comparison to the mixed impact of war in Russia on Jews, in Germany it created far more unity than tension. Jews joined the rest of the German population in greeting the war with enthusiasm and patriotic sentiment, with around 100,000 serving in the German military, and around 18,000 being awarded the iron cross, a medal for bravery. In addition, 3,000 were promoted to officer ranks, a significant sign of integration and acceptance of German Jews, especially when considering that no Jews had been promoted to officer ranks from 1880 to 1910. Finally, 12,000 German Jews made the ultimate sacrifice for their country throughout the war, dying in combat. The memory of the service of the German Jews was ignored and suppressed by the Nazis years later during their campaigns of antisemitism and the previously mentioned ‘stab in the back myth’, which blamed them for the loss of the war in 1918.(5) However, much like in Russia, antisemitism was prevalent among the highest ranks of the German army, which can be seen in the ‘Judenzählung’ of October 1916, an attempt to confirm accusations of lack of patriotism among German Jews by conducting a census of Jews in the armed forces. It aimed to prove that Jews lacked patriotic values held by other Germans by showing that proportionally less Jews served in the armed forces. For German Jews, it was viewed as a betrayal by the country which they had proved their loyalty towards, and the government’s actions pushed many young Jews towards Zionism, diminishing their sense of integration and unity. Jewish authorities conducted an identical census, and found their figures of serving German Jews to be significantly higher than those recorded by the government, disproving the claims of disloyalty and unpatriotic sentiments made in the Judenzählung. However, overall the war created more unity than tension for German Jews, as they proved their loyalty and patriotism with their distinguished military service to an extent that could not be ignored by the German public. Even during the Nazi rule, many Germans continued to acknowledge their service, with President Hindenburg ensuring that Jewish veterans didn’t lose government jobs due to Nazi persecution (6).

By the outbreak of World War One, Germans made up a sizable minority in the Russian empire, providing an unusual example of a significant ethnic component that was inextricably linked to the enemy. In 1914, there were an estimated 2.4 million Germans throughout the Russian Empire, with many high-ranking individuals within the Russian government being of German descent. Upon the outbreak of the conflict, the German population of Russia pledged their allegiance to the Tsar in the State Duma (or parliament). They consisted mainly of educated and highly productive farmers, many of whom had settled in Russia in the 18th century under Catherine the Great (herself being of German descent) - this productivity and relative wealth often drew suspicion and resentment from their Slavic neighbours. The underlying tension combined with the sense that the German minority represented an enemy within led to much of the Russian population fully accepting and even supporting action against their German compatriots, even if they had co-existed for centuries. This began with the forcible removal of any Imperial subjects of German origin, with hundreds of thousands of men, women and children loaded onto trains and deported to the frontiers of Siberia. The notoriously antisemitic and xenophobic General Yanushkevich, previously mentioned for his actions against the Jews, declared that they “must expel this German filth… drive them out like animals”2. Russian authorities used the generic justification and evidence of German subversion; that they were “without a doubt damaging the telegraph and telephone lines”. The ultimate irony of the persecution of these Germans was that much of it was perpetrated by Russian commanders who were themselves of obvious German descent, including generals Sievers and Evert. (7) The enthusiasm of such generals can provide the only real examples of the war creating unity rather than tension between Russians and Germans, as they abandoned their ethnic identities in favour of loyalty to their country.

For the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Serbs concentrated in the Kingdom of Serbia and as a minority in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Southern Hungary represented a similar internal enemy. The war itself was arguably sparked by the execution of Austrian Duke Franz Ferdinand by a Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Princip, prompting the invasion of Serbia by Austria-Hungary on 12 

August 1914. For the rest of the war, Serbia remained occupied by the Austro-Hungarians, making it a de-facto component of the empire. Tensions between the Austro-Hungarian occupiers and the Serbs was formed largely with the background of the Duke’s assassination, which caused many Austro-Hungarians to view Serbs with suspicion and hostility as a default. Furthermore, the Serbs had long been represented as barbarians to the Austro-Hungarian population, leading to considerable fear among troops in occupied areas. These factors can arguably explain the brutality of the Austro-Hungarian army towards the Serbian population. There are many documented examples of brutality against Serbian civilians, especially in the region of Mačva, and the town of Šabac, where on one occasion, 120 women, children and old men were shot and buried in a churchyard by Austro-Hungarian troops8. In total, an estimated three to four thousand Serbian civilians were killed by the invaders, not to mention the large number of alleged Serbian guerillas who were executed. The actions of the Austro-Hungarians not only greatly exacerbated tensions between themselves and the Serbs, but also between the Serbs and the other South Slavic nations of the empire, including Croats and Bosnians, as they made up significant parts of the army. The depth of these tensions is shown by the following ethnic tensions that were prevalent in inter-war Yugoslavia, caused in part by actions of South Slavic troops towards the Serbs. Overall, there is no indication of any real unity between the Serbs and their Austro-Hungarian occupiers. The actions of the army prevented any such cooperation, and the Serbs maintained an animosity towards their occupiers that was exacerbated by Austro-Hungarian policies of forced labour and deportation which saw 70,000 able-bodied men sent to internment camps. (9)

My brief review therefore suggests that the First World War overall created more tension than unity between ethnic components of the Eastern and Central European empires. Despite this, for some minorities, the conflict provided a unifying goal which they shared with their Imperial compatriots. In Germany, for example, the service of Jews in World War One had a long term effect on the perception of many, who questioned the Nazis’ antisemitism in the 1930s due to the memories of Jewish soldiers fighting and dying for Germany only two decades earlier. In addition, the large numbers of Polish soldiers fighting for both sides, and the German-descended generals in Russia who chose loyalty to their country over loyalty to their ethnic group provide further instances of unity. However, its overall impact was in many instances to increase tensions between ethnic components and imperial authorities. The war influenced populations to see minorities as internal threats within their own countries, especially as historical prejudices and suspicion towards these groups were widespread. The war acted to magnify these pre-existing tensions, which can be clearly seen in the case of the Germans in Russia, as people’s general feelings of threat and paranoia were amplified.

By extension, it can be argued that the ethnic tensions which were exacerbated by the First World War played a significant part in laying the foundations for the Second World War only two decades later — illustrating the extent to which tension outweighed unity. For example, Poland’s relationship with Russia and Germany as a partitioned state was mirrored in 1939 

with the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, which again saw the nation split between competing powers. Russian and German perceptions of Poland, and the Polish people’s long-term antipathy towards both countries was in no small part due to the conflict in the First World War, which included Poland as a strategically important battleground between East and West, effectively a buffer between the two empires. This was at the cost of the Polish people, who suffered brutalities from both armies, establishing a relationship of distrust and hostility that, to this day, continues to affect their relations with Germany, and to a larger degree with Russia. Similarly, attitudes towards Jews in Eastern and Central Europe can be seen to have also been influenced by the tensions of the First World War. Seeds of tension and antisemitism which were sown with the Judenzählung affected the perceptions of the German people to a great extent, establishing the view of Jews as unpatriotic and untrustworthy which formed the basis of not only the “stab in the back” myth utilised as justification by the Nazis, but of antisemitism as a whole in post-Great War Germany. Overall, these examples of long-term tensions illustrate how the First World War caused more hostility between ethnic components than unity — without which many of the ethnic hostilities, arguably including the ultimate horror of the Holocaust for the Jewish people, which characterised the Eastern front of World War Two, would not have been so prevalent.





1) 1 Evans, T., Maxim Larin and Fyodor Dostoyevsky (2016). The brothers Karamazov. Stroud, Gloucestershire, Uk: Real Reads Ltd.

2) Engelstein, L. (2019). RUSSIA IN FLAMES : war, revolution, civil war, 1914- 1921. Oxford University Press.

3) Kitchen, M. (2006). A history of modern Germany, 1800-2000. Malden, Ma: Blackwell Pub.

4) “The Jewish Agency for Israel Timeline”

5) Federation of Jewish soldiers.

6) “The German-Jewish soldiers of the First World War”

7) Nachtigal, R. (2016) Germans in Russia during World War 1. Russia’s home front in war and revolution 1914-22

8) Wawro, G. (2014). A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War 1 and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire

9) Herwig, H.H. (2014). The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary 1914–1918. Modern Wars. Bloomsbury Publishing.