<meta name="google-site-verification" content="A0Hkdwjhm5g-iCzoctZ4mYl3nGpRp1x56PWznB-hC3U" />

Maastricht University

The Great War’s Third Space: Military Occupations in Europe in the Era of the First World War

Sophie De Schaepdrijver, Pennsylvania State University

Military occupation was a major dimension of the First World War. As invasions pushed frontlines deep inside enemy territory, large patches of Europe found themselves occupied by enemy armies. Imperial Germany established occupation regimes behind the western and eastern fronts; Austria-Hungary held territories in Poland and the Balkans; tsarist Russia occupied Galicia for a brief but significant period; behind the Macedonian front, the Allied ‘Army of the Orient’ established a regime resembling an occupation; Bulgaria held one-third of Serbia; the Central Powers jointly occupied Romania; from 1917, the German and Austrian armies placed a swath of northern Italy under an occupation regime; and, after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, they pushed eastwards into Russian imperial lands, to Rostov-on-Don and beyond. Altogether, some 40 million Europeans experienced the war, or part of the war, under occupation regimes; and those regimes relied on hundreds of thousands of occupying troops and administrators both military and civilian.

The war superimposed a map of fronts and, therefore, of home fronts on the European continent. But the occupied spaces were neither front nor home front: one could call them the ‘third space’ of this war. This third space was, in one sense, marginal to the war: it was neither the theatre of major military clashes (front), nor the locus of sustained war efforts (home front). At the same time, the third space was central to the war. Occupying powers exploited conquered lands deeply and systematically – up to and including forced labour – to sustain their armies and home fronts. Conversely, invaded powers and their allies strove to roll back conquest. For both sides, then, the creation of occupation regimes re-crystallized their engagement with the conflict.

Not that any of the belligerents had gone to war with the explicit aim of conquering the lands which they ended up occupying. Occupations were not established according to pre-war plans for territorial aggrandizement. Occupations were the by-product of invasions that stalled, creating the stalemated fronts of what John Horne has called the European belligerents’ ‘mutual siege’. The third space, then, was not a war aim at first. But it became a war aim: giving up conquered land was non-negotiable for both sides. All the more so as the fronts had been created in costly mobile warfare, and were being maintained at the cost of an ongoing hecatomb. At an essential level, therefore, the third space fuelled the First World War.

Occupied L’viv. Civilians and mounted Russian military on Karl Ludwig Street, today’s Prospekt Svobody, 1914 or 1915.

What kind of regimes did occupying powers establish? Some areas were under exclusive military control. This was the case in the vast territory called Ober Ost (short for Oberbefehlshaber der gesamten deutschen Streitkräfte im Osten), the German-occupied Russian imperial lands northeast of East Prussia; in the Russian-administered General Government of Galicia and Bukovina; on the Belgian coast, administered by the German Navy; and elsewhere. Other areas were under mixed civilian-military rule, such as the German Government-General of Warsaw that administered large swathes of ‘Russian’ Poland. Exclusively military regimes tended to pursue exploitation, deportation policies, and the overall instrumentalization of the people and the resources of occupied lands more brutally and with less of a sense of oversight from civilian authorities in the ‘metropole’ than was the case for mixed occupation regimes.

But all occupation regimes exploited the lands they occupied. This entailed confiscation of resources including livestock (including wild animals: to name one example, the bison herd in the primeval Białowieża forests in Poland had practically died out by war’s end). Material exploitation also encompassed the purchase of agricultural produce at artificially low rates; the takeover of factories and landed estates; the dismantling of industrial infrastructure; and other forms. Human exploitation encompassed forced labour and the corralling of women into military brothels.

Much of this exploitation served the needs of fighting armies. Another requirement of fighting armies was the establishment of strict order in the occupied lands that now served as their hinterland. This entailed harsh restrictions on locals’ mobility; house and person searches; and the deportation and/or internment of suspect groups or ethnicities.

Occupied Bruges. Civilians and mounted German military on Market Square (Markt), n.d., 1915-1918.

Exploitation and order in the interest of maintaining fighting fronts were goals in the immediate term. Next to these, occupation regimes and the domestic and military forces that sustained them (governments, political parties, lobbies, enterprising officers) also pursued longer-term goals. Plans arose for permanent domination of the occupied areas. These could entail outright annexation or vassalization. While these aims looked beyond war’s end, regimes pursued them during the war and as a justification for war. In 1914, for example, the Russian commander Alexei Brusilov stated that his troops, busy marching into the Austrian crown land of Galicia, were really crossing into ‘Russian lands from time immemorial’; following the invasion, a Galician-Russian Benevolent Society set about ‘russifying’ Galician schools. Similarly, in early 1916, Moritz von Bissing, Governor General of occupied Belgium, placed a manifesto in a German occupation periodical published in Poland to point out that ‘all those called upon to labour in [enemy territory] feel it their sacred duty on behalf of our children and grandchildren to build these lands gained with German blood into a bastion [ein Bollwerk] that will shatter all our neighbours’ aggressive cravings.’ Creating a ‘bastion’ entailed, in both occupied Belgium and occupied Poland, the creation of wartime universities under the auspices of their respective German occupation regime, so as to foster a young regime-friendly elite. Von Bissing’s emphasis on ‘German blood’ as a justification for permanent domination once again underscores the extent to which ongoing warfare framed the third space.

German poster, 1918. Entitled “The Path to Peace” (Der Weg zum Frieden), this poster was created by Oberstleutnant Max von Sartor (1890–1919) for the military department of the German foreign office (Militärische Stelle des Auswärtigen Amtes), a propaganda department.

We should note that the fronts framed not just occupiers’ vision of what was at stake, but that of the occupied civilians too. Another theme to be elaborated elsewhere is that of two existing, ambiguous definitions of the term ‘third space’, which close research reveals to be particularly pertinent to the First World War’s occupations. The first is the political geographer Edward W. Soja’s concept of ‘Thirdspace’, as the locus where the concrete and the imaginary (in other words: the tangible space, and the representations and expectations bound up with that space) interact to form one experience. The second is the sociolinguist Homi Bhabha’s definition of ‘Third Space’ as a space where dissent can emerge.

But to return to the main point of this blog post: ongoing warfare – in other words, the maintenance of high-intensity, high-casualty fronts – is what gave the First World War’s third space its cohesion. These were, at an essential level, wartime occupations: the war framed their priorities, their form, and the outlook of occupiers and occupied. This includes the long-term outlook: these occupations were projected into a post-war future precisely because they were wartime occupations – the promise (or, for the other side, the threat) of their permanence served to mobilize armies and domestic populations, in other words, served to mobilize fronts and home fronts. Occupation regimes mobilized home fronts by stressing the bountiful nature of their conquered areas, if need be with spin. In the summer of 1918, for instance, inhabitants of Brussels saw trainloads of stolen Belgian potatoes on the railway tracks ready to leave for Austria; wagons were marked ‘Ukraine’, to make the starving Austrian home front believe that the conquest of Ukraine – which further bound the Habsburg empire to the war – was already yielding its promised riches. (It wasn’t). To sum up: the war’s three spaces reinforced one another.

As a final point, let us note that one can locate the cohesion of the First World War’s occupations inside the war context without excluding the occupations of the ‘war after the war’. In other words, the end of the third space did not mean the end of enemy occupation. The lifting of the ‘mutual siege’ (whether after Brest-Litovsk or after the Armistice) gave way to an implosion of smaller-scale violent entrepreneurship, in the absence of states’ monopoly on lawful violence, across the scatterzone of empires. The resulting invasions back and forth generated enemy rule. Meanwhile, in the West, Allied armies marched into German territory to ensure compensation.

The organizers of the June 2022 conference The Great(er) War of Military Occupations in Europe brought together a roster of scholars to shed light on this third space – including eagerly-awaited research on, for instance, the Russian occupation of Anatolia and the Italian occupation of Slovenia – and on post-war occupations, such as the Allied occupations of the Rhineland or Istanbul. In addition, the felicitously named panel on ‘Transfer of Experience’ features a paper on ‘neighbouring military occupation’ that takes the wide chronological view, ranging from 1872 to 1945. This combination of focus and breadth in an innovative gathering to discuss occupation in Europe in the era of the First World War holds out the promise of contributing to our understanding of the wider nature and causes of military occupation and imposed rule in the modern age.



Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture. Abingdon: Routledge, 2004.

Sophie De Schaepdrijver, ed., Military Occupations in First World War Europe, London: Routledge, 2014.

John Horne, “Inventing the ‘front’: Cognition and Reality in the Great War,” lecture, University of Kent, School of History, December 8, 2016. With thanks to Professor Horne for permission to cite this text.

Edward W. Soja, Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and other Real-and-imagined Places. Malden (Mass.): Blackwell, 1996.

Mark von Hagen, War in a European Borderland: Occupations and Occupation Plans in Galicia and Ukraine, 1914-1918. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007.


Photo credits:

Cover picture and Picture No. 2: Mounted German marine troops in Bruges, n.d. [1915-1918]. City Archives Bruges, Belgium. Permission granted.

Picture No 1: “Karl Ludwig Street, Lemberg (now Svobody Prospekt, L’viv), the city’s main street, n.d. [1914 or 1915]. Civilians alongside mounted Russian military.”, George Grantham Bain collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2005022018/

Picture No 3: “Der Weg zum Frieden”: German propaganda poster depicting occupied areas, 1918; https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1918_Max_von_Sartor_(Milit%C3%A4rische_Stelle_des_Ausw%C3%A4rtigen_Amtes,_MAA)_Plakat_Der_Weg_zum_Frieden,_Hermann_Bergmann,_Berlin.jpg
Meant to convince the army and home front in mid-1918, the poster depicts different steps on an alleged ‘Path to Peace’. These steps entail territorial (re)conquests, depicted in simple maps. The sequence starts with the 1914 Russian invasion of East Prussia, entitled ‘The Russian Threat!’ (Die Russennot!) and resolved by ‘Hindenburg Arrives!’ The next step is the push into Russian imperial territory: ‘The Russians Defeated!’ Ensuing steps are ‘Serbia Put Down!’ followed by the invasion of ‘Misguided Romania!’ and the invasion of ‘Treacherous Italy!’ in 1917. The Spring 1918 push into Russia is rendered as ‘Liberated Peoples!’ (Befreite Völker!) The next-to-last image depicts the Western Front in France and Belgium as ‘The Wall in the West! Backing the Victors in the East, 1915 – 1916 – 1917’. The last picture depicts the German Spring offensive in the West in the spring of 1918 as ‘The Decisive Step!’. To sum up: the poster aimed to rouse front and home front in the war’s last stage; to this purpose, it represented occupied areas as guarantees of security, indeed of peace. In so doing, the poster exemplifies how the ‘third space’ propelled the war onward.


Sophie De Schaepdrijver is Walter L. and Helen P. Ferree Professor of Modern European History at Pennsylvania State University, US