World War I

Atrocities in East Prussia, 1914

When Steve Barnes invited me to join this project, I hadn’t given much thought to blogging as a scholarly enterprise.  I have read academic blogs from time to time and I usually enjoy them. Sometimes helpful, sometimes self-indulgent, often stimulating, frequently ranting, I’ve put them on the list of things I’ll browse for intellectual pleasure in odd moments in the day, say the ten minutes I have between lunch and my one-fifteen class. But I didn’t plan to write them myself. Steve convinced me, however, that the blog as a genre held real possibilities for scholars. I won’t go into all of those possibilities in this first post, but I will point out a couple of obvious facts about the current limitations of scholarly publication: we only review new books, we review articles anonymously or in the safety of our classroom, and we comment very infrequently upon the strengths of particular works for teaching.  And, of course, the publishing process takes a long time.  At one time, listserves promised to break down some of these barriers, but few of them really do.  So this group blog, from my perspective at least, is a chance to experiment with short-form publishing in which the peer review comes after publication (in the form of responses to the posts, which are always welcome) rather than before.  It’s an exciting opportunity.

My first post is a short translation I’d like to share and briefly comment upon.  Aleksandr Subbotin was a cavalryman from the village of Kolkovo in Tver’ province who served in Rennenkampf’s First Army at the start of World War I.  Bright and literate enough to keep a diary, but occasionally clueless enough to be confused about the actual army he was in (he wrote that he was serving in the Fourth Army), he left behind a diary of the war and several photographs.  These remnants were preserved by local historians and ended up in a special room of the House of Trades in the town of Goritsy. They were read there by Vladimir Burdin, who thought the story of the local boy off at the Great War merited publication.  His edited volume of the diary was published in 2008 in the small burg of Kimry (pop. 50,000). As far as I can tell, only one library in the United States owns the book, and only the magic of WorldCat and interlibrary loan brought it to me.

Despite this unusual provenance, Subbotin’s diary is not all that different from other Russian soldier diaries I have read, but there is one significant difference. Subbotin reports his own behavior and the behavior of his comrades just after they crossed the German border in 1914 without a hint of self-censorship.  Given the delay of publication, there was also little outward censorship, which was fortunate given the political ramifications of atrocity stories in the twentieth century. At the time and long afterwards, German sources insisted that East Prussia had been despoiled and its inhabitants violated by the invading Russian troops in the time period between the Russian invasion and the German victories at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes that drove the Russians back on their side of the border.  Others wondered whether these German protestations were little more than an attempt to divert attention from the atrocities they were accused of committing in Belgium and France at the same time.  Mutual recrimination was the dominant mode for many years.  That situation has begun to change with the publication of  a good deal of high quality scholarship on the events on the Western Front, most notably John Horne and Alan Kramer’s German Atrocities, 1914, but scholarship on the events in East Prussia is far thinner.  Most students of atrocity on the Eastern Front have focused on Galicia or Anatolia, with good reason.  The scale and duration of civilian abuse in those regions was much greater than anything that happened in East Prussia.  Nevertheless, the events in East Prussia ought to be of interest more broadly to students of twentieth century Russia and to students of the Great War.

Subbotin is exceptionally, almost painfully, cool and frank in his short descriptions of raping and pillaging below.  It is precisely the normality of his tone that is most shocking.  What soldier wouldn’t race to get the best cheese? Who would be concerned by shooting “about” eight spies over the course of a day’s march?  Why not wink at the comrades who “courted” two girls they grabbed off the road and dragged into the rye?  The fact that these men were whipped by a German baron for driving their horses too hard (and not for raping the locals) says volumes about relations between soldiers and officers, ethnic groups within the Russian army (which had plenty of ethnically German officers in 1914), and the mundane violence of life on the front starting from the very first days of the war. It makes you wonder whether all the talk of a gradual breakdown of Russian discipline gets the story wrong, for where is the discipline in this tale?

The dates below are old style (13 days behind the western calendar), and the place names are straight transliterations from the Russian (thus Suvalki rather than Suwałki)

29 July 1914. We set out from the town of Suvalki and arrived in the village of Motula, where we only paused to eat, and in the evening we marched to the village of Ol’shanka, where we stood six versts (one verst is 1.06 kilometers – js) from the border of East Prussia.

30 July 1914. The division remained in the village of Ol’shanka, and on the 31st we set out in the direction of Magriboven. We traveled lightly, taking only our weapons, the rest we left behind, we were on field patrol.

A region of more than forty versts of East Prussia along the border was enveloped by fire. A battle was going on, strictly artillery. Exploding shells were visible, both from us and the Germans.  The Germans retreated. The battle lasted all day and night on the first of August. On the second, we stayed in place and went on field patrol. The division had received its first baptism.  Many soldiers and officers were buried over the course of those days. Our lieutenant was killed early on, the soldier Seleznev was killed, and others too.

3 August. The division set out and at six o’clock in the evening crossed the border near the Filippovskii customs post in the direction of the town of Marusken, which is a verst from the Russian border.  At 6:45 we arrived in the town of Marusken.  But as we halted on the edge of town, just to the right of us a group of our infantry was already leaving the town’s cheese factory.  The infantrymen had loaded up planks with six or more wheels of cheese and were carrying cups and rolling away whole barrels of Russian butter, which they were eating directly with their hands or spreading on the cheese.  And so upon our entry into the city we also began to plunder. We broke open their cellars, took out harmonicas, brought some wine, and began a real party.  On the tables appeared geese, ducks, eggs, beef, and apple wine. But we had hardly begun feasting when the alarm was raised. We quickly saddled our horses, and the news spread like lightning that German infantry was marching upon us. Our artillery got into position, and we extended into a line. We fired a rifle volley at the Germans creeping up our left flank, but the darkness hampered the shooting. The Germans retreated back.  Soon everything had calmed down and we unsaddled the horses and began to feast again.  After the feast I lay down to sleep next to my horse Gabal’nik and soon fell asleep.

4 August. I woke up early in the morning and set a table between two apple trees, red apples hung directly over the table. A lot of guys were very drunk.  You couldn’t find any soldiers smoking makhorka (a cheap tobacco – js).  Everyone without exception was smoking cigars, the very best taken from the shops, and they were eating chocolate. Everyone was all mixed up together, someone groaned, someone threw up.  At 9 AM they roused the whole division and we marched to the Danilin farmstead.

8 August. We marched to the village of Al’botvingen. On the road to the village we shot about eight spies. Marching along the road, we destroyed two tall observation towers. At four in the morning, Riazanov and Iurchuk arrived. They had found two girls along the way and had dragged them into the rye in order to court them. And in order to make up for lost time, they drove their horses at a full gallop in order to catch up to the regiment.  On the way, they ran into the commander of the division, General Gurko, and his adjutant Lieutenant Argnol’d, who ordered them to be given five lashes for overworking their horses. And upon their arrival they were sent for punishment to Lieutenant Rekunov.  Argnol’d did not like Russian soldiers in general, since he himself was a German baron, and Rekunov also was strict.

Aleksandr Mikhailovoch Subbotin, Dnevnik soldata Pervoi mirovoi voiny (Kimry: IP Mel’nikova N. V., 2008), 21-25. Translated by Joshua Sanborn.

By Joshua Sanborn

David M. '70 and Linda Roth Professor of History
Department of History
Lafayette College (Pennsylvania, USA)

11 replies on “Atrocities in East Prussia, 1914”

This is fascinating, Josh. I have a couple of questions born really out of my own ignorance about military history. First, is there something particular to World War I about this soldier’s mindset, or is it simply a permanent feature of war to have so little regard for individuals that things which strike us as atrocity are to this soldier nothing out of the ordinary? (From the description of the book you linked, it is clear that this was a phenomenon among many of the war’s combatants.)

Second, and related, it seems that I often hear about the significance of World War I, among other reasons, for the brutalization of warfare. Is this in fact the case, and if so, is it that something fundamental had changed prior to the beginning of the hostilities? Here we see this brutality already at the very outset of that war.

Steve, no I don’t think there’s anything particular to World War I about this soldier mindset at all. In fact there are other testimonies that suggest that among certain groups (Cossacks in particular), looting and abusing civilians was part of the “benefits package” of being a soldier, and I think this expectation has a very long lineage in the history of warfare. For the same reason, I don’t really think that World War I brutalized warfare as such in any substantial way. Instead, wartime violence was understood by some constituencies in a different way. In the wake of a half a century of attempts to have international laws of war and other rules to mitigate its savagery, some held the expectation that European states would and should fight each other without the systematic abusing of civilian populations. This was one of the reasons that “atrocity” became such a big storyline in the war itself. Russian soldiers picked up on that story line as the war proceeded (not least due to efforts by higher-ups to document atrocities committed against Russian soldiers), but early on, as this diary suggests, it may have not played a large role. On a related note, I would argue that it’s easy to exaggerate the process of “brutalization” or “weariness” as processes that unfold slowly during the war. To the contrary, I think many shifts occur very quickly and at the very outset of the war.

Really interesting, Josh. I haven’t read much in WW I soldiers’ diaries, but the cadence of your translation reminds me of some of the British soldiers of the period. The matter-of-fact approach to everyday occurrences seems quite similar. It feels as if there is almost a tiredness about it. This kind of feeling would make sense later in the war, and particularly dug in on the western front where the lines of battle moved little, but I’m surprised to see it so early on the eastern front. Does the diary change in tone as the author moves through the war? His coolness in the face of brutality is quite unnerving. What do we know of his biography that might have led him to appear so detached?

Karl, I wonder as much about material constraints and the genre of diary writing as about the emotional state of Subbotin or other diarists. One doesn’t want to carry lots of paper for obvious reasons when on the march, and acquiring it may have had its challenges as well. I say this because letters I have read tend to be far less laconic than diaries. Letters, of course, have the advantage that you send them and they don’t weigh down your pack. In addition, I wonder about the genre of the field diary for Russian soldiers. I have another in front of me right now (I. S. Iakovlev), and the entries in this one are even less informative, i.e. “2 августа. высадка Варшава.” full stop. Or, at best “15 мая. Воскресенье были в церкви. После обедни купил коробку печенья 75 коп. После обеда ходил в лес на прокулку. Скука была весь день ужасная.” In general, the communication of emotion to oneself seems to not have been among the purposes of most of these diarists. As I said, one gets much more of this emotion from letters, and certainly from memoirs as well.

rape and looting is a natural (and best) part of warfare, reference to which can be found in many primary sources. all that solves the population problem a man might consider evil, i’d call it nature, heres to another century of glorious violence 🙂

It is interesting to compare the excerpts that you have translated from this diary with the diary of S. F. Putiakov (1941-1942), which I translated for a recent anthology intended for undergraduates (The Russia Reader, Duke U. P., 2010, pp. 518-519). Needless to say, World War I and World War II were completely different conflicts, especially for a soldier like Putiakov, who was stationed in the Leningrad region during the blockade of the northern capital. The boredom of war is clearly communicated by the fact that Putiakov prefaces each entry in his diary with the never changing note, “On guard.” Beyond recording the amount of rations he was given each day and noting when he was able to melt snow in order to wash himself, Putiakov devotes much of his diary (which in total encompasses four notebooks) to trying to make sense of the war between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. There is a clear sense of “us” versus “them,” and that the resistance to the German invaders is worthwhile: “News from the front is good. They took back Mozhaisk. Things are progressing towards a purging of our territory [. . .] Today I received joyful news. They dealt a healthy blow to the fascists. They say they’ve taken back Velikie Luki. [. . .] Standing is sort of hard, but on the other hand it’s good for fighting back fascists.” Putiakov clearly articulates his ideological orientation by noting major historical events of importance to the Soviet calendar when beginning diary entries: “Today is the anniversary of Bloody Sunday.” I notice a pronounced lack of interest in trying to find any “higher” meaning of the war in Subbotin’s matter-of-fact commentary. The facts that he notes — rape and looting — could equally apply to the German or Russian sides.

In the early 1970s I worked at a hotel in Washington, D.C. with an elderly East Prussian, who, if memory serves, was from the Tilsit area. He recalled a story about invading Cossacks “in the next town” cutting off the right index finger of every young boy they captured, supposedly in the belief that this would prevent them from learning to shoot and becoming soldiers when grown. I wonder how much of a role “terrible boredom” (ужасная скука), such as Iakovlev complained of, played in that cruelty.

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