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« Tuna 2 / 2018

The Policy of Special Treatment for Prisoners of War of Estonian Origin during the First World War

The fate and war experiences of the roughly 80,000 Estonians fighting on the Russian side in World War I has received increasing attention over the last few years. This article is a further contribution to this research, providing an overview of wartime German plans to implement segregation (Absonderung) and special treatment (Sonderbehandlung) of Estonian (but also Latvian and Lithuanian) prisoners of war, therefore classifying them as somehow different from their Russian fellow sufferers. Segregation and special treatment were meant to encourage the development of friendliness towards Germans among the POWs. This in turn was supposed to be helpful in the process of Germany’s annexation of Estland and Livland. Germany hoped to establish the basis for future friendly relations between the Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian and German peoples. At the same time, these political aims took into account the economic importance of the prisoners’ labour for wartime Germany. Subjecting the POWs to German political influence was expected to increase the prisoners’ trustworthiness and therefore to directly benefit the German economy by making it possible to use POW labour more flexibly while decreasing the need for guards and oversight.

German policies targeting Estonian POWs changed over time. Apart from the rather preliminary and ultimately unsuccessful plans to subject them to German propaganda already in 1915, a more serious and far-reaching initiative was adopted by the Prussian Ministry of War in 1917-1918, when the German High Command had made up its mind about the future annexation of the Northern Baltic region to Germany. However, the German authorities were never able to overcome the fundamental contradiction between the political and economic goals of their policies. Whereas their political aims required ever-gentler treatment of ‘friendly’ POWs, German economic policy was focused on keeping the war effort going and ultimately could not cross the Rubicon of allowing these same POWs to return home. This remained the case even after the Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty between Germany and Russia had been signed, thus creating the necessary legal basis for demobilisation on the Eastern Front. The resulting bitterness that most POWs felt towards Germany was probably too significant to be outweighed by any ‘special treatment’ measures, meaning that the friendliness the Germans had hoped to inspire among the POWs most likely failed to seriously take root.

In the end, of course, Germany was defeated and any such plans already failed for that reason. Nevertheless, the segregation and special treatment policies that the German military authorities implemented regarding Estonian and other Baltic POWs shed new light on German war aims in the Baltic region, and particularly on their attempts to rely not only on Baltic Germans, but also on the native populations of Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians. These populations, after all, also included the POWs, a group more accessible to German propaganda than any of their compatriots. The POWs were therefore a test laboratory for policies that probably had some continuity with German occupation regimes in the Baltic provinces themselves.