Historical Boundaries of the German Reich

Published in „Siegrunen“ Magazine – Vol. V, No. 4, Whole Number 28, January 1982

By Michael Redmond

According to the popular mythology, World War II was precipitated by the attempt of the Germans under the Third Reich to invade and conquer the territory of their European neighbors, with world conquest as their ultimate goal. The reality is that after World War I, the Germans were deprived of substantial territories they had occupied for centuries, and the announced goal of the Third Reich was the recovery of those portions of the lost territories which were still occupied by German speaking populations.

Historically, Germans have contributed much to the vitality of the nations of Europe, and German boundaries once extended far beyond even the 1914 limits. Never fixed, they have oscillated backwards and forwards throughout generations. If we wish to understand rightly the historical distribution of the German political, settlement, and culture areas, we must go back to the very beginning of European history.

The earliest forefathers of the Germans were the Norsemen of the early stone age (2500-1800 B.C.). After the ice, which originally covered a large part of Europe, had worked its way back on to the mountains, the Norsemen descended into the western regions along the East Sea. For many thousands of years, they dwelt in southern Sweden, in Denmark, and northern Germany.

The Norsemen developed a high agrarian culture. They practiced husbandry, cattle raising and seafaring, setting up permanent monuments to their dead which still survive as the giant tombs of the Luneburg heath or the Oldenburg land. These early Norsemen dwelt in high gabled, wooden houses which are very similar to those of North German farmers today. The household furnishings consisted of beds, cupboards, benches, and other articles. Beautifully formed vessels and tools carved out of wood were in use. The Norsemen made their clothing out of linen materials and twill. They knew how to tan the finest leather out of animal hides. Their artistic sense was highly developed. It showed itself very clearly in their beautiful stone weapons, the dagger and the battle ax.

The Norsemen of the early stone age were energetic, well developed men of the Nordic race. They multiplied very rapidly so that a time finally came when their arable land was no longer sufficient for all. The youth, the pith of the folk, had to go forth in order to acquire new land. The Norsemen wandered away along many routes following every direction under the sun. They settled in neighboring and far distant regions inhabited by foreign races. In only a few cases was it possible for them to preserve their racial character. Frequently they mixed with the natives and formed new peoples such as the Celts, Illyrians, etc. In some cases, however, they acquired, almost unmixed, new territories and created there – as Indo-Iranians, Greeks, and Romans – the highly developed cultures of antiquity. The cultural values and the racial traits of the Norsemen were spread throughout Europe in the course of these wanderings. The unity of former times is still evident today in the languages of most European peoples. Science has grouped these people together under the name of Indo-Germans.

The culture of Europe and particularly that of antiquity, as well as all that is today based thereon, does not come therefore out of the east. Its origin lies in the north, to a considerable extent on German soil.

At the conclusion of the Indo-Germanic wanderings the Norsemen of the early stone age united to form in their homeland a people unified internally and externally, the Germans.

The bronze age (1800-800 B.C.) brought German culture to a flourishing state and also the first acquisition of land by the Germans on the continent.

The heritage of their forefathers was developed still further and to an unprecedented degree by the Germans. Land cultivation, animal husbandry, and seafaring experienced a great upward swing. Objects of use, clothing, and weapons were refined. Weapons which are objects of wonder even today were created out of gold, amber and bronze, the first metal. Fighting and sports were encouraged on all sides. Music and art also flourished to a high degree. All in all the bronze age presented such a magnificent picture of the cultural development of the Germans that it gave rise to the expression “golden age of the Germans.”

Natural catastrophes, apparently spring floods along the coast of the North Sea, suddenly produced a great need for land among the Germans. The rapidly growing people was forced to decamp and take up new land. Constantly struggling with their neighbors, they spread out unceasingly. They pushed across the Weser and Oder. By the end of the bronze age they had reached the lower Rhine in the west, the mouth of the Vistula in the east, and mountain ranges of central Germany in the south.

The iron age (800-50 B.C.) followed the golden age. It did not derive its name solely from the new material, iron, which now came into use. But the name also signified that now a real iron age had emerged fully of fighting and tussling for new land.

Nevertheless, German culture showed further progress even during this hard time. The handicrafts and especially the art of forging blossomed forth, to which the new weapons, swords, daggers and spears bear witness. The raising of horses and the building of wagons attained a high degree of perfection, thereby giving for the first time the possibility of great advances in farming.

Once again youth was forced to stride out after new land. A climatic disturbance in the western part of the East Sea region reduced the productive capacity of the greatly overpopulated land. Food for man and beast no longer sufficed. In long trains the heavy wagons of the peasants once again rolled out of the homeland. In great battles and continual fighting the young peasants were obliged to force their way into new lands. This time they spread out over an enormous area. The greatest expansion took place toward the east. From the coast of the German East Sea branches of Germans pressed across East Prussia, the interior of Poland, and southward along the rivers as far as the Black Sea. Their numbers were so weakened, however, in the course of numerous battles that they were unable to establish themselves in south Russia and were absorbed by foreign peoples. Groups of Germans from Denmark and south Sweden wandered into the region vacated along the East Sea. They spread or rather worked their way forward as far as the Sudeten. The western Germans went forth after new land too. They advanced across the lower Rhine to south Holland and Belgium and pressed on along the Rhine as far as the Rhine-Danube- Winkel. The iron age had, in this way, brought about a tremendous enlargement of the German territory. It was now bounded on the continent by the line Flanders, south Holland, the upper Rhine, Danube, Carpathians, Bug and Memel. In consequence of this great expansion the German people, up to this time unified and compact, assumed the form of numerous branches which we classify as north Germans in Scandinavia, east Germans east of the Elbe, and west Germans to the west.

The age of the Romans (50 B.C.-375 A.D.) which succeeded the iron age is replete with countless struggles of Germans with the Roman Empire which was powerful at that time. The splitting up of the German people into branches now proved to be especially disadvantageous. For all the successes of the Romans, even though they were only temporary, are traceable back to the disunited, defensive struggles of the Germanic branches. Nevertheless the Romans were unable to conquer the core of the German territory, the Germany of today. In the great and decisive battle in the Teutoburg Forest (9 A.D.) the west Germans under the leadership of Armin were victorious over a powerful Roman army. This army was completely destroyed and Germany was preserved for all time from Romanization. The frontiers of the German territory in the west and southwest remained almost unchanged. In the east, however, a powerful expansion took place once more. East Germans, Goths and Gepidae pushed out from the region between the Vistula and the Memel across Poland towards south Russia to the Black Sea and the lower Danube. Here they separated into eastern and western groups. The east Goths spread out from southern Russia to the east and north. They founded a powerful empire which, under King Hermanarich, “united all the land between the Ural Mountains, the East Sea and the Black Sea.” West Goths and Gepidae moved up the Danube and in a similar manner created a great empire between the Danube and the Carpathians which was able to withstand the onslaughts of the Romans. The Marcomanni forced their way into the territory of the Sudetens and likewise established an empire which gave the Romans a great deal of trouble. By the end of the Roman period, therefore, the Germans had taken possession of all the land between the Urals, the Black Sea, the Danube, and the Rhine.

The period of Germanic migrations (375-1000 A.D.) is the heroic age of the Germans. The invasion of Mongolian hordes from the far distant steppes of the east set the east Germans in movement. Giving way before this pressure they abandoned their old homeland and turned westward. After tough assaults they overflowed the boundary walls and streamed into the Roman Empire which fell to pieces under this onslaught. Some of the Germanic branches succeeded in winning new land out of the territory of the old Roman Empire and in building up great kingdoms beneath the southern sun. The Vandals erected an empire in north Africa, the west Goths in Spain, the east Goths and Lombards in Italy, and the Burgundians on the soil of southern France. These kingdoms could not last long however, for the Germans constituted only a thin layer of leaders above the older peoples and were gradually extirpated in the course of constant strife.

Once again, some centuries later another stream of Germanic peoples poured out over Europe. This time it was the north Germans branch, known as Normans, Vikings and Varangians. The Normans, aboard bold dragonships, pushed as far as the Mediterranean and settled down on its shores. They established states in southern Italy and in Antioch, as well as in northwestern France and southern England. While the Vikings and Normans wandered about over western Europe the Varangians pushed across the East Sea onto the continent, proceeded with their ships downstream to the Black Sea and even appeared before Byzantium, the capital of the eastern Roman Empire. In that part of present-day Russia, to which they gave their name, they established a powerful Varangian Empire. The Varangians, therefore, overran Europe from the east.

The Germanic territory had, during the period of the migrations, spread out over all Europe. The political significance of this lies, not only in the fact that for once the peoples of Europe were refreshed with Nordic-German blood and the common basis of western culture was strengthened, but also in the fact that through Germans Europe achieved unity for the first time. Whereas the Roman Empire had not pushed beyond the limits of the Rhine and Danube and did not include all of central and eastern Europe, the Germans flooded Europe from the Urals to Gibraltar, from the North Cape to Constantinople. Europe, as a cultural and spiritual unity, is therefore the work of the Germans.

The west German branches had not participated in the great migrations. They remained in their old homesteads, spreading out westward, however, over the Ardennes and the Vosges. One of the west German branches, the French, founded an empire in western and central Europe, which, after long continued struggles, also included the remaining Germanic branches on the continent. About the year 900 this empire of the French split into an eastern and western empire. From the eastern empire emerged the German Reich. Its eastern boundaries coincided with the frontiers of the territory thickly populated by Germans and extended along the line of the Elbe – Saale – Bohemian Forest – Enns. Its western limits, after fluctuating back and forth, finally followed the line separating Germans and Romans. Small territories belonging to the Romans were added to the Reich, while the northwest tip of the Germanic region remained with France.

During the succeeding centuries the branches of the Eastern Empire – Frisians, Saxons, Frankonians, Thuringians, Swabians and Bavarians – merged to form the German people, a people that blossomed forth mightily and governed the course of history throughout the middle ages. The greatest accomplishment of the German people was the winning back, during the middle ages, of the eastern territory between the Elbe and the Vistula.

After the migration of the east Germans, Slavic tribes pushed their way into this territory. They shared the land with the hardy remnants of Germanic settlers who had remained on the land.

The colonization movement was first taken hold of by the Bavarians. In the course of tough struggles with mountains and forests they spread out along the Danube to the southeast under the bold leadership of the Babenbergers. Slowly they forced their way high up into the valleys of the Alps and the Bohemian primeval forest. These regions were for the most part uninhabited so that here the acquisition of land could proceed peacefully. And, in this way, the Germans won the central and eastern Alps, the Danube region as far as Pressburg, and the southern interior of the Bohemian basin. To be sure the Bavarians in their thrust towards the south and southeast found exceptional support from the German Kaiser, since the territory acquired cleared the way to Italy. Thus the oldest settlements of the Reich came into being, the Austrian, Styrian, Carinthian and Krain districts. They have remained for all times the southern outposts of the Germans. After the dying out of the Babenbergers (in 1156) the new districts were separated from the Bavarian motherland as independent duchies. The propelling forces of the homeland were thereby cut off and the southeastern movement came to a standstill.

In the northeast, along the Elbe and Saale, special districts were set up to protect the German frontiers and to give the Reich military security. Hermann Billung administered the northern district, Count Gero the central one, and feudal counts of the King administered the one in the south, the Sorbische mark. Since there was still enough land for pasturage and cultivation within the German Reich, these special districts remained purely military areas partially populated by Slavs. So long as the German Kaiser, who was of Saxon parentage, focussed his attention primarily on the internal building up of the Reich and, therefore, on the security of the frontiers, peace and order reigned in these districts and the neighboring territories of the Slavs. When, however, Emperor Otto II suffered a defeat in Italy and, in consequence of incessant fighting in Italy, the Reich became weak, the Slavic tribes revolted in the year 982 in order to shake off the German overlordship. The German towns and settlements along the frontiers of these districts were destroyed and the Germans massacred. Only with the greatest difficulty was it possible to bring the onslaught of the Slavs along the Elbe to a halt.

After this crucial insurrection the Elbe remained the frontier toward the east for almost 200 years. However, during this period the German population increased considerably. The German soil could no longer provide for this increase. In this emergency the broad, thinly settled regions east of the Reich were remembered. The procession of the German peoples toward the east began. To be sure the German Emperors fostered the new eastward movement only in exceptional cases. They had taken a fancy to the south and now pursued the dream of Roman world domination. The Princes of the German frontier lands, on the contrary, realized the great possibilities which the east offered them. They put themselves at the head of the movement and thereby assured the success of German colonization on that side of the Elbe. The protection of German Princes was all the more necessary in as much as the Slavs interposed bitter opposition at first to the onward march of the Germans. The sword had to clear the way for the settlers at first.

Along the coast of the East Sea Henry the Lion, the Guelf Duke of Braunschweig, with the aid of his friend, Adolf of Schauenburg, won the territories of Holstein, Lübeck and Mecklenburg. For the first time the German Reich extended as far as the East Sea. Trade with lands along the East Sea was developed. Henry the Lion devoted himself to this task with particular zeal. The founding of Lübeck, later head of the German Hansa, was one of the farseeing acts of this great colonizer. After the unfortunate rift between the Lion and Kaiser Frederick Barbarossa the former’s work was destroyed because of the southern policies of the Reich. Nevertheless the regions had been so thickly settled with German peasants and urban dwellers already that, in spite of later seizures by the Danes, they henceforth retained their German character.

At the same time Albert the Bear, leader of the German Askanians, originating in the old frontier district of Geros, secured control over the lands along the Havel, Spree and Priegnitz. By negotiation and seizure, he gradually extended his territory to the limits of the district of Brandenburg, he was the first who could properly call himself Margrave of Brandenburg. His successors were inspired by the same spirit. They extended the Askanian lands across the Oder and so shaped the point of departure for the later state of Brandenburg.

South of the district Brandenburg the Wettinian Princes strove to win land back again. They built up the old Sorben district and recovered the territory of the present state of Saxony for the Germans. Besides peasants there are primarily miners and lumbermen here, people who settled the mountain ranges and the interior of the Bohemian foreland.

About this time the Sudeten territory, in which the German Marcomanni had formerly resided, also seemed to defy complete Germanization. The Dukes of Przemysl, who were friendly to Germany, called German settlers onto the land in order to further its development. Likewise, Ottokar II, King of Bohemia, a whole-hearted German, continued the Germanization of the Bohemian region. However, when he, with shrewd, political insight, undertook to build a solid front from Bohemia toward the east he was driven out of his lands by the vile, power politics of the Hapsburgs. Once again a wave of Germans moved into the Bohemian lands when, during the middle of the 14th century, Charles IV of the House of Luxemburg attempted to make the Bohemian lands the center of the German Reich. He died, however, before he could complete his work. The settlements of the Czechs had already been pushed back to little remnants of land. The Germanization of all Bohemia seemed to be assured. Then, just before the outbreak of the Reformation, the Hussite war flared up and completely destroyed the whole of German life in Bohemia. Since that time the Germans in this region were forced into a defensive position. Although Bohemia belonged to the German Reich up to World War I, that is to say to Austria, it was never possible to bring about complete Germanization. And so, a deep wedge was driven between the northern and southern regions of the German population area hindering the development of a unified German front on the east.

Whereas the land between the Elbe, Saale and Oder had in the main been acquired by warfare, the winning of Silesia and Pomerania followed a more peaceful course. The Slavic Dukes of these countries called German peasants and settlers onto the land. The German settlers came at first from cities established by Germans. The penetration of the lowlands proceeded slowly on account of the ideological opposition of those living under Polish influence. In spite of that, however, by the 13th century both of these lands were added to the German Reich, and attached to the German population area.

With the incorporation of Pomerania and Silesia the area about the Oder was completely Germanized. In the territory about the Vistula, on the contrary, the task of German colonization succeeded only in the northern parts. The opening up of the eastern territory for the Germans was accompanied by the conversion of the pagans residing there. The Poles settled along the Vistula, had already, after the first meeting with the Germans, laid aside their paganism. So long as these Polish regions were subject to the archbishopric of Magdeburg there existed no obstacle to colonization. For the first time, in the year 1000, when the religious enthusiast Kaiser Otto III founded the Polish archbishopric Gnesen, the Poles received their own Polish national church. They also became independent politically and culturally thereby. So, a second bulwark against the Germans came into being. Further penetration of the Germans on the north was checked. They were forced to follow the shores of the East Sea and leave behind them the national territory of the Poles as a standing threat on their flank.

The recovery of the East Sea region lying east of the Vistula was the work of the German Order of Knights. Conrad Massovia, a Polish Duke, called upon the German Orders for protection against the still pagan East Baltic, Prussians and Lithuanians. During the course of yearlong struggles they took possession of the whole region from Danzig to Riga. Moorlands, islands and numerous estuaries of the lower Vistula, and impenetrable wildernesses opposed them. Nevertheless, after 50 years of bloody fighting the Order overcame the Balts. The German Order of Knights that ruled over the region which is East Prussia drew German peasants and manual workers into the country, gave them land and soil and protected them from attacks. About the year 1300 the power of the Order reached its high point. Emigrants to this eastern land from all parts of the Reich built up new settlements everywhere.

The colonization of the Baltic lands situated to the north of East Prussia, in which the Order of the Brothers of the Sword took part, was more difficult. On account of the long sea journey a sufficient number of German peasants and manual workers could not be induced to go. Consequently, the Germans in these districts were confined principally to the cities, which were strengthened by Hansa merchants from Bremen, Luebeck and Lueneburg.

In the course of time, since the Order of German Knights had been weakened by internal conflicts, Poles and Lithuanians united against the Germans. As a result of this alliance the Germans were defeated in battle at Tannenberg in 1410. The Order of the Brothers of the Sword was completely driven out of the Baltic provinces and only the land around Marienburg was left for the Knightly Order of the Cross. But East Prussia was now German and remained German although for some decades it became a Polish fief under the overlordship of the Polish crown.

During the period of the decline of the German Orders the power of the German Kaiser had also sunk to a mere shadow of what it was once. The driving force of the German people was spent, the march toward the east came to a halt. Much of that which the Germans had built up in the east by blood and toil was now exposed to the onrushing flood of Slavs. Only after Brandenburg-Prussia rose out of the ruins of the Thirty Years’ War did a new power appear which devoted itself consciously and with determination to the eastern frontiers of the Germans. The Great Elector rescued East Prussia from the feudal domination of the Poles and attached it firmly to Brandenburg. The soldier king, Frederick I, devoted his whole energy to building it up economically. Frederick the Great, with the acquisition of Silesia, offered for the first time a strong united German front in the northeast. He was able also to win back the bridge to East Prussia. As a result of the first partition of Poland in 1772 he obtained West Prussia and by the third partition of Poland in 1792 Posen together with Thorn and Danzig fell into his hands. In that way the compact German population area was again united under German rule.

For more than 500 years, therefore, Mecklenburg, Pomerania, East and West Prussia, Silesia and Sudeten Germany and German Austria were to be listed as part of the German population area. In the course of a truly historical accomplishment all branches of the German people won back these territories which comprise almost one-half of the 1914 German population area. This reconquering was primarily a colonizing process and a cultivation of waste and unproductive districts by German peasants and townsmen under the leadership of its Princes and Nobles. In no case were foreign peoples deprived of culture areas. German work and German achievements alone transformed these districts into cultural areas. Out of this fact arose the claim of the German people to these regions.

This entry was posted in History.

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