Occupation, Military

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While military occupation, the seizure and domination of foreign territory, is an ancient phenomenon, the twentieth century saw a rise in new, ideologically charged occupations. These differed greatly from the customs of ancien régime Europe, when territories were annexed or transferred from one dynastic state to another without reference to ethnicity or broader political justification (when Frederick II, king of Prussia [r. 1740–1786], seized Silesia from Austria in 1740, ancestral claims were a mere afterthought). While beliefs certainly played a role in prior wars, and while brutal realpolitik continued into the new century, the emphasis on ideological claims concerning politics and social organization was new in its intensity. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin (1879–1953) declared during World War II that "this war is not as in the past; whoever occupies a territory also imposes his own social system. Everyone imposes his own system as far as his armies can reach. It cannot be otherwise."


Types of occupations can be distinguished in terms of the explanations advanced for them by the occupiers. In the first place, thinking about modern military occupations within Europe was affected by the experience of European imperialist powers overseas and their annexation of vast territories around the globe in the late nineteenth century. The political philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) intuited a connection between imperialism and the rise of modern totalitarian ideologies with vast appetites for conquest, and observed that the Nazis acted like foreign rulers in their own country before expanding their realm. Yet within Europe, ideological justification for military occupation was often couched in terms of popular legitimacy or democraticization, as liberation. With the occupation of defeated Germany in 1945, democratization and denazification were stated Allied aims, even as they were pursued differently in East and West. Stalin's imposition of communist rule on six Eastern European countries after World War II (Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, and East Germany), and Soviet annexation of the Baltic States (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia) with the introduction of political, economic, and educational systems modeled on the Soviet Union, were presented as a perfection of "people's democracy." Not all ideological justifications embraced the rhetoric of democracy. In the Nazi case, SS leader Heinrich Himmler (1900–1945) observed that the aim of their policies in the East was no longer Germanization of native populations, as in the past, but resettlement by pure Germans.

A further criterion for types of occupation involves the intended future goals for the territory, including whether the occupation is to be temporary or permanent, with the territory made over fundamentally, as a new order. Nazi racial resettlement plans for eastern Europe aimed to provide "living space" for a Germanic master race through expulsions and mass murder. After World War II, Soviet policies of Russification in the Baltic states continued over decades. Other military occupations have been rationalized by security needs. The planned fifteen-year Allied occupation of the Rhineland area after Germany's defeat in World War I was to give France added security against a revival of German aggression. In other cases, economic necessity is an element. When French and Belgian forces occupied the Ruhr valley region of Germany in January 1923, they aimed to extract reparations they were owed. Soviet dismantling of factories and confiscation of raw materials from eastern Germany from 1945 on was likewise an explicitly economic motivation. More recently, military occupations have claimed humanitarian motivations. NATO forces entered the Kosovo area of the former Yugoslavia on 12 June 1999 (under a United Nations mandate) to stave off mass ethnic cleansing by Serbian forces against the region's Albanian majority.


Depending on the stated aim of an occupation, occupiers can show a range of behaviors, from the mild to the murderous. German soldiers in France and Denmark, conquered in 1940, were ordered to be friendly and considerate of the civilian populations, to win them over. By contrast, in Belgium and northern France in 1914, exaggerated fears of guerrilla resistance led German forces to brutal reprisals in which they executed at least 6,400 civilians, in a policy of deliberate terrorization. The Soviet occupation of the Baltic states in 1940 was followed by targeted deportations of civilians to Siberia, to break local resistance. With the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939, a murder campaign called Operation Tannenberg ran in tandem with the establishment of the occupation, aiming to destroy Polish elites (by December 1939, up to 50,000 Poles had been killed). Historians argue that in eastern Europe during World War II, superiors tacitly tolerated German soldiers' abuses of the civilian population as a safety valve for the intense discipline the soldiers were under. In Belarus, more than 2 million civilians and POWs were murdered during World War II. In a cycle of revenge, Soviet forces moving onto German territory in 1944 and 1945 engaged in pillage, mass rapes, and brutalization of civilians (though instances of kindness and forbearance were also recorded).

Paradoxically, the same occupier can act in radically different ways in different occupied areas at the same time, for ideological reasons: Nazi occupation of eastern European countries was incomparably harsher than their rule in western and northern Europe, since Slavs and other non-German eastern Europeans had less racial value in the Nazi worldview.


International law has not been able to regulate occupations effectively in an age of total war. This is evidenced by the fact that while up to 10 percent of deaths in World War I were civilian, this ratio rose to an estimated 50 percent in World War II. Yet the very fact of repeated attempts to legislate restraint testifies both to the brutality and breaking of custom, as well as the durable will to limit the destructiveness of occupations.

Conventions have sought to define legal and illegal combatants, rights to resist invasion, abolition of hostage taking and collective punishments (holding localities responsible for acts committed in their vicinity), security of private property, and other protections for civilians. They also underlined the occupying power's responsibility for the maintenance of civil order. Before World War I, the 1907 Hague Convention (IV) Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land represented a major attempt in this direction, but was interpreted differently and violated in the war. The 1929 Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War did not settle questions about the treatment and status of civilians in occupied areas. Given added impulse by the atrocities of World War II, the four Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 built on earlier efforts (the Geneva Convention of 1864 and the Hague Conventions). Among these, the Convention for the Protection of Civilian Persons in Times of War also defined a right to civilian resistance against occupation, not only invasion. The Geneva Conventions were further elaborated in the controversial 1977 Additional Protocols to apply to guerrilla wars and civil wars. These international legal constraints, however, were and are often broken in practice.


Occupiers impose new legal structures and institutions in their exercise of control. Drawing on the experience of European imperialism overseas, many occupiers recognized the benefits of indirect rule, as perfected in the British Empire, stressing cooptation of local elites and delegation of responsibility. Thus, many occupations also retain structures of the earlier authority. Hitler preferred cooptation of established national elites in conquered countries over patronage for local imitators of the Nazis, who were often marginal socially and politically. After its conquest in April 1940, the Nazis treated conquered Denmark as a "model protectorate," retaining its king, parliament, and civil administration. In occupied Soviet areas, from 1941, the Nazis initially retained the Soviet structure of collective farms, in spite of their condemnation of Bolshevism, because these farms were useful for centralizing control of the food supply. Legal structures also have charted the breakdown of relations between former allies in occupation, as the creation of two independent German states in 1949 under Western and Soviet patronage made clear. Finally, the formal outlining of legal structures is not a perfect description of real power relations in occupation, as in practice these legal strictures can be negotiated, violated, or subverted. Occupying powers also often use their authority to extract economic resources and labor. German occupiers used forced labor in both world wars. Under Nazi occupation, France was obliged to pay the costs of its own occupation, ultimately contributing some 40 percent of all foreign resources directed to the German war effort. Requisitioning of food without regard to the needs of the civilian population led to an estimated 300,000 Greeks starving to death under Nazi occupation.


It is a general truth that a military occupation is always a relationship, however brutal or enlightened that regime might be in real, day-to-day practice. An occupation also involves more than just two monolithic and opposed parties, the occupiers and the occupied: rather, distinct divisions and groupings can exist on each side and their mutual relations contribute to the dynamics of life under occupation. An important factor in shaping an occupation is whether there is a prior history of conflict or interaction between the parties, shaping preconceptions and prejudices. The Germans and French held traditional concepts of each other as hereditary enemies, while American military occupation of a zone in western Germany after 1945 saw the emergence of newer stereotypes, less rooted in a distant shared past. Also, in the establishment of an occupation, first impressions seem crucial, with initial experiences conditioning the regime. In the German occupation of territories in eastern Europe in World War I, the encounter with unfamiliar lands and peoples and the devastation of Russian scorched-earth policies shaped the occupiers' perspective.

Social life under an occupation is determined by often radical status reversals. Earlier pre-invasion hierarchies are recoded, often in traumatic ways. Most obviously, the outside military forces demand deference and are atop the new social order. In the French occupation of the German Rhineland after World War I, French African colonial troops from Morocco and Senegal were among the occupying forces. German nationalists denounced this as a special humiliation, reversing the subordination of non-European peoples to Europeans. For its part, the occupying power can seek to co-opt groups within the subject population, in a policy of "divide and conquer." In both world wars, German authorities sought to encourage Flemish separatism in Belgium, with little success. In tandem with the occupation of the Rhineland after World War I, the French supported attempts to set up an independent Rhenish state. In Nazi-occupied Poland, a Volksliste or ethnic list of privileged persons of German ancestry was drawn up, including some two million Poles registered as Germans. Nazi occupiers also sought to scapegoat the Jewish minority within occupied populations, as a focus for displaced resentments.

Occupations also feature an altered demography of the subject population, especially in terms of gender. Fewer men of military age remain (killed, taken prisoner, or withdrawn in retreat), and the populace is disproportionately made up of the young, the old, and women, confronting a mostly male enemy military. Rapes have often accompanied military occupations, even when formally proscribed by military regulations. The Soviet army's mass rapes of German women in the years following 1944 did much to undermine the authority of the Soviet occupation and later the East German state. Less brutally, occupations are also often marked by fraternization (even when this is also forbidden), the interaction of the civilian population with the foreign military, and the emergence of personal relationships, whether based on prostitution or sincere emotion. Such fraternization is often condemned as "horizontal collaboration" by those unreconciled to the occupation. In World War I, an estimated 10,000 births resulted from German soldiers and French mothers in the occupied area, and in World War II, the result of occupation was 50,000 to 70,000 Franco-German babies (other estimates run far higher). In Nazi-occupied Norway, Germans fathered over 8,000 "war children." Such children often faced discrimination and shame after the occupation.

Frequently neglected in the historical narrative, occupations are also especially harsh on the mentally ill or disabled, who may find it even more difficult to adjust to the changed order and new rules of behavior and subordination, with dangerous consequences in emergency situations like checkpoints or searches.


The social and political life of occupation opens up intense and complicated moral questions of how the occupied should react. Choices to resist or collaborate can change over time, often determined by perceptions of likely future prospects. It is also crucial to note that both resistance and collaboration are usually not all-or-nothing categories, but rather represent a spectrum of possible actions. One question brings some dilemmas into focus: under occupation, is doing business as usual a form of resistance or collaboration?

Resistance can come in forms large and small, ranging from armed attacks, sabotage, and spying on the enemy to more discreet reactions: reading underground literature, listening to foreign radio broadcasts, muttering sly jokes, or even simply maintaining a cold silence toward the occupier, avoiding eye contact. Active resistance tends to be rarer (it is estimated that only 2 percent of the French population were involved in active resistance against the Nazis), because of the extraordinarily high cost it can exact, not only personally for the resister if caught, but also in reprisals against relatives or hostages from the community at large, often undercutting popular support for the resistance. However, resistance tends to grow in proportion to calculation of likelihood of defeat, so that resistance to the Nazis grew across occupied Europe after their defeat at Stalingrad in 1943, seen as a turning point in the war. Yet even resistance is not monolithic, as there are many cases of rival resistance movements fighting internal civil wars in tandem with their opposition to occupation. Resistance can also last very long: the guerrilla war of the "Forest Brothers" against Soviet occupation in the Baltics lasted into the 1950s.

At the other pole of possible reactions is collaboration, cooperation with the occupier, out of a variety of possible motives. The concept of "collaboration" was originally coined in France during World War II, and at first carried positive connotations of working together with the occupiers for the good of the defeated yet regenerated French nation, before acquiring its present negative aura. Though not under military rule, the Vichy French regime under the figurehead of Marshal Philippe Pétain (1856–1951), with the slogan of "Work, Family, and Country," enthusiastically sought a place in the "New Europe" of Hitler. Their anti-Semitic measures culminated in the rounding up and shipping of Jews from France to the Nazi death camps. A key criterion in whether collaboration is possible is whether the occupying forces see the subject population as capable or worthy of collaboration. The comparative scarcity of Polish collaboration with the Nazis during World War II, relative to elsewhere in occupied Europe, was due both to Polish patriotism and the Nazis' racial hatred. Collaboration could also be explicitly motivated by ideology. The craven attempts at collaboration of Norwegian Nazi leader Vidkun Quisling (1887–1945) made his name synonymous with treason (though paradoxically he was marginalized by Hitler's preference for cooperation with established elites). Committed anti-Semites from eastern European populations helped in the Nazis' genocide against the Jews. Occupying powers sometimes also seek to recruit auxiliaries or military forces to fight at their side. In World War I, Germany and Austria-Hungary declared a Kingdom of Poland on 5 November 1916, hoping to recruit a Polish volunteer army, but the results were utterly disappointing. Nazi rhetoric of a "New Europe" and a crusade against bolshevism inaugurated the creation of SS foreign legions in which an estimated 500,000 non-German Europeans served, though not all were volunteers. Finally, collaboration can also be motivated by simple opportunism. Denunciations of neighbors to the occupation authorities to settle private scores are key examples of the reversals of fortune and status that occupations bring.

The complexity of the issues of resistance and collaboration is further heightened in regions that experience successive occupations, like the Baltic states (Soviet occupation, 1940–1941; Nazi occupation, 1941–1944; Soviet reoccupation, 1944–1991). With each successive occupation, the labels of resister and collaborator can be suddenly reversed, with existential consequences.


The impact of military occupation extends far beyond its establishment and consolidation, depending on whether it is eventually reversed, or whether it becomes permanent. Over time, military occupation can segue into civil administration and incorporation into the victor's territory. If an occupation is reversed by continued war or a peace settlement, the consequences are also far-ranging, as the reversal of hierarchies and subordination is again overturned. The result is not always a return to the status quo ante bellum. A vivid example is France after 1944, where liberation was accompanied by purges of alleged collaborators, in which at least 4,500 were executed immediately, with some 124,000 later put on trial. In what later would seem an asymmetrical verdict, French women accused of fraternization with Germans had their heads shaved and were paraded through the streets, while some prominent collaborators were not brought to justice. The French Fourth Republic was established to mark a break with the past. In Greece, frictions between different resistance movements erupted into a civil war. The overturning of Nazi rule in eastern Europe likewise led to acts of revenge against ethnic Germans in the region, who were expelled from their homes in the millions.

Liberated societies experience the need to deal with the traumatic collective memory of occupation, often replacing it with new public heroic narratives of united resistance, even as private memory retains the more complicated everyday realities. In international politics, the former occupier's acknowledgement of the occupation is an important factor. The famous scene of German chancellor Willy Brandt (1913–1992) kneeling before a memorial to Jewish victims of the Nazis during his visit in December 1970 is emblematic of this. By contrast, more than a decade after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian government's official denial of the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states in 1940 continues to burden international relations and reconciliation between those neighboring states. The legacies of occupation are overcome only very slowly, if at all.

See alsoDisplaced Persons; Forced Labor; Holocaust; War Crimes; Warfare; World War I; World War II.


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Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius

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