Drang nach Osten

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German populations in Europe in 1910. Borders in red.

Drang nach Osten (German for "yearning for the East") is a modern term with negative connotations, used to suggest the intention of Germany (or the German peoples) to conquer and/or settle in lands in Eastern Europe. It has been said that the first known use of the phrase "Drang nach Osten" was by the Polish journalist Julian Klaczko in 1849. It remained a Slavophile obsession so much so that it is now commonly used and misused by many so-called historians.


Essentially the Teutonic peoples had been gradually spreading and settling eastwards for centuries, which brought them into conflict with the many Slav tribes who had migrated westwards from the Dnieper basin, crossing the great European plain and the Carpathian Mountains, and thus establishing scattered settlements across a wide area from parts of Pomerania to Hungary . The arrival of the Magyars in Hungary checked the Slav migration there. The Romans regarded the river Vistula as the eastern frontier of the Germans (Germania).[1] The Teutons named the Slavs Vinithos or Venethas, rendered approximately by the Roman historian Tacitus as Venedi[2] (which entered into more common usage as 'Wends'), and from at least the eighth century the wars between the Slav tribes and the Germans are well-recorded.[3] The "frontier" of the Saxon Duke and German King Henry I, 'The Fowler' (r.912-July 936), and the Holy Roman Empire of Otto 'the Great' (r.936-973), was roughly and uneasily along the Elbe. The Saxon margaves, from their eighth and ninth century fortresses and castles[4] along the "Slav Marches" fought, plundered and pillaged "the barbarians"[5] of the east, much as the Normans were to do in Wales from the late eleventh century. By the time of his death Henry I had defeated a succession of Slav tribes on his eastern borderlands. However, these wars broke out again in 937.[6] The three Ottos, would, however, decisively gain the upper hand during their reigns.


Elsewhere in the ninth and tenth centuries Hungarian raiders were not simply opposing any eastward Teutonic settlements but continually raiding German lands. An armistice agreed in 924 was ignored. A decisive blow, by King Henry I's forces, was when the Magyars were routed at the battle of Riade in 933. However another great raid took place in 937, with an invasion into Bavaria March in 954, which reached the Rhine, as they sought to exploit internal issues in the Empire as well as its Slav war of that year. On the 10th August 955 Emperor Otto's massed armies totally defeated and "annihilated" the Magyars at the Battle of Lech. There is no evidence of any Hungarian activity on the Bavarian Marches for the rest of that century.[7]

Bohemia and Poland

In Poland and Bohemia the tenth and eleventh centuries saw a remarkable transformation. Early in the tenth, Duke Wenceslas of Bohemia - the 'good king' of the Christmas carol - had German suzerainty imposed upon him, and accepted with more readiness the Christian faith, together with German relics and clergy. In 935 he was murdered, and German control and the Christian faith were not re-established for some years. Poland, like Bohemia, had accepted the overlordship and the religion of the Ottos.[8][9][10] The visit of Otto III (r.996-1002), as emperor and apostle, to the shrine of the martyred St. Adalbert at Gnesen, where he established the first Polish archbishopric, marked the coming of age of Poland as a duchy under German influence. But Duke Boleslav 'the mighty' (992-1025) was by no means inclined to continued feudal dependence; after Otto's death he proceeded to conquer the borderlands between his own and the Saxon frontier; and in a series of campaigns he kept the Emperor Henry II (r.1014-1024) at bay. They made peace in 1018, which allowed Boleslav the freedom to campaign further east against the Russian duchies. From then on Poland remained Catholic and western-orientated in religion, eclectic in politics and culture, a duchy only rarely owing more than a perfunctory allegience to the German Emperor.[11]

10th-12th centuries overview

The tenth century had seen Germans settling in all the lands between the Elbe and the Oder, and beyond.[12] The Empire had helped to consolidate Germanic migration. Whilst the advance of Germany's eastern frontier by permanent conquest and settlement had begun in the tenth century, it then temporarily petered out. In the twelfth century it began again in earnest, with help also from the Papacy who sought conversion of pagans, an example being Pomerania where about 1124 Bishop Otto of Bamburg was received in great splendour by the converted heathens. By this time the Germanization of the population of this province was nearing completion. In 1186 Otto II was formerly invested with Pomerania,and more German settlers moved into that duchy.[13] In 1133 the Emperor Lothar had conferred the March of Brandenburg on the head of the House of Ballenstedt which began the perod of the Ascanian Margaves who steadily pushed their conquests eastwards beyond the Oder, imposing feudalism as they progressed.[14] Great Lords like Henry the Lion (d.1195), Duke of Saxony and Bavaria, carved out large domains for themselves in the east, and peopled them with peasant settlers from many parts of Germany. This was one aspect of the large movement of colonisation which is so marked a feature of the age.[15] By the twelfth century the "frontier" was moving decidedly eastwards. To a point, there were great periods of co-existence between the peoples of these lands.


Pomerellen (sometimes called Pomerelia), upon whose shore Danzig was located, was a duchy which stretched between Prussia and Pomerania with a Kashubian population[16] . It was included in the Polish diocese of Wloclawek in 1148, but it was not politically subject to Poland. The Duke of Pomerellen in 1222-1266, Swantopolk, defended his rule victoriously against the neighbouring Polish Dukes who attempted to subject him, while Pope Gregory IX recognised his independence and threatened the Polish Dukes with heavy ecclesiastical penalties if they continued to wage war upon him. Through their many contacts with the Germans, notably seaborne trade, the Dukes of Pomerellen appreciated the more advanced Teutonic civilisation[17] and endeavored to attract German immigrants by founding convents and monasteries (i.e: in 1170 and 1209), endowing them with large tracts of lands and filling them with German nuns and monks. Duke Swantopolk granted his protection to Lubeck merchants who brought salt and cloth to Danzig, and lowered the customs duties in their favour. The port rapidly grew with the influx of German immigrants. In 1235 The Duke gave Danzig the constitution of a German city, granting it the German law code of Lubeck.[18]


Poland had suffered as much as Russia from the Tartars' invasions. Poland was divided into several principalities under members of the House of Piast, who had fought for the dignity of Great Prince at Cracow. Of these the princes or dukes of Silesia were already half-German when the Tartar invasion broke upon Poland in 1241, when even Cracow was destroyed. (It was rebuilt by German colonists in 1257.[19]) Still worse damage was inflicted in 1259 and later years, so that the divided but unsubdued land was ruined and depopulated. One result was that Silesia became definitely German under its Piast dukes. German settlers poured into town and country; they kept their own laws and brought their own more advanced civilisation, and spread beyond Silesia eastwards. Przemyslav II of Greater Poland tried to unite the Poles and was crowned King at Gnesen in 1295. But King Wenceslas II of Bohemia, who represented German as well as Czech interests, now conquered most of Poland and became King (1300-5). On his death the internecine wars and German infiltration continued.[20]


"To the Teutonic Order of knights, established in 1190, belongs the honour of anticipating and frustrating Polish ambitions and of establishing in a conquered and converted Prussia an ecclesiastical and military state of a unique type."[21] They secured alike from Emperor and Pope, and the Polish Duke of Marzovia, the pledge that the Order should be invested with all the lands won to Christianity and German civilisation. In 1231 the knights arrived in Prussia and for a century a fierce struggle took place until the resistance of the native Prussians, the Prusai, a Baltic people[22] was finally broken. They also absorbed the Duchy of Pomerellen and the port of Danzig. The castle and city of Königsberg was founded in 1255 by the Order, and eventually their Prussian realm stretched to Memel. Behind these military crusaders came the German colonists and traders as well as huge numbers of German clerics. The Order carved out Bishoprics with Papal approval, and founded monasteries, convents and schools; German municipal rights were granted to the burghers. It promoted trade, built numerous important cities such as Danzig, and allied itself to the Germanic Hanseatic League. The renascence of the Polish kingdom under the Jagellon dynasty meant that Poland would challenge the Order, and in 1410 a vast Lithuanian-Polish army backed up by huge numbers of mercenaries from Bohemia and Moravia and even by Tartars, defeated the much smaller army of the Order after a close-run battle at Tannenberg. The Order held on to most of its domains but inevitably, after such a humiliation, decline set in.[23]

Modern History

Pan-Slavism and the Central Powers

The three late eighteenth century partitions of Poland, following centuries of continuous warfare and intercine strife, left eastern Europe in the hands of the three European powers: Russia, Prussia, and Austria-Hungary, and, with the exception of Napoleon's invasions, led to the longest period of peace in eastern Europe for well over a century. However, the first half of the 19th century saw the foundations of the Pan-Slav Movement of Slavic solidarity, and general Slavophilism in Russia and eastern and south-eastern Europe. This led to the liberation of Bulgaria and Serbia, who both shared similarities in language and religion with Russia, and to the subsequent Balkan wars against the Ottoman Empire. All this created unrest amongst Slav nationalists in the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires. Any study of Russia's path to The Great War has to look at this tradition. The Slavs living on what Vienna perceived as its semi-colonial periphery felt that in Russia they had a great Slav power as protector.[24]. Although Austria had occupied Bosnia-Herzogovina since the Treaty of Berlin in 1878[25], its announcement of formal annexation of the province in 1908 (seen in western circles as a mere formality after such a long period of occupation), along with the further announcement of a new railway building programme in the province, caused outrage in the Pan-Slav and Pan Serbian circles, who saw this as an expansion of Teutonic territory "at Slav expense". Austria-Hungary already possessed numerous provinces populated largely by Slavs. Again the Russians were very concerned about Galicia and constantly accused the Austrians of encouraging Ukrainian nationalist sympathies. In addition, with the bulk of Poland now a Russian Kingdom, Polish nationalists in St. Petersburg placed pressure upon the Russians over Galicia, where the largest estates had remained in the hands of Polish landowners. This pressure increased with the coming of the Dumas. In fact, Ukraine "barely registered with key German policy makers."[26] The fact that Germany was the principal ally of Austria-Hungary confirmed the paronoia.

It could be argued that the gradual and paranoid obsession of the Pan-Slav movement with the two great Teutonic empires really brought the term Drang nach Osten into the limelight. For the Pan-Slavists, Teutonic rule also meant immigration in some form or another. There was also Pan-Slavist unease about the Germans who had, since the 13th and 14th century, governed and controlled most institutions in the Baltic states. Some Russian politicians became obsessed that the German Empire had territorial ambitions in the east. There was not a scrap of evidence in the German archives to support these obsessions, but this mentality, encouraged by France who had their own anti-German agenda, persisted and gathered pace until outbreak of The Great War.[27]

Third Reich

The term Drang nach Osten was again used in connection with the policies of the German government in the period 1933-1945. Most of this is Allied and extreme nationalist propaganda,[28][29][30] or based upon Adolf Hitler's speeches[31] or casual after dinner conversations[32] such as his statement made on 7th February 1944: "It is eastwards, only and always eastwards, that the veins of our race must expand. It is the direction which Nature herself has decreed for the expansion of the German peoples", is used to support the thesis that Drang nach Osten was an important element of Germany's policy. Yet there was no firm established government policy to move German immigrants east under the National Socialist government (despite the talk), mainly because of the continuing World War II. In fact immigration to Germany of Germans from the east, notably from the newly-independent Baltic states from 1919, had been commonplace. Instead of the term Drang nach Osten, the term Ostpolitik is possibly more accurate.[33]

Savitri Devi argued that Ostpolitik should not be seen as "warmongering". He explains that Hitler wanted to increase the number of babies born, because he not only wanted to raise the quality of his people but also their quantity, because the number of human beings increases all over the world, while their quality decreases no less alarmingly; and that Hitler's policy intended to stop this process, first of all for the Aryan race, but in principle also for the other races. But if many babies are born, they need to have space to live. Devi felt that Ostpolitik meant expansion to the East primarily into Russia (Russia’s limitless expanses), the citadel of Marxism at the time.[34]


  1. Bury, Professor J.B., The Cambridge Medieval History, edited by H.M.Gwatkin, M.A., and J.P.Whitney, B.D., vol.ii, Cambridge University Press UK, 1913, chapter xiv "The Expansion of the Slavs", pps: 425-6 and notes.
  2. Portal, Professor Roger, The Slavs, Paris 1965, London, 1969, p.21.
  3. Leyser, K.L., Medieval Germany and its Neighbours 900-1250, London, 1982, p.97, where in original dispatches of the Margrave Aribo of the Eastern March to King Arnulf in 891 gave him also a bulletin from the Moravian frontier. ISBN 0-907628-08-7
  4. Leyser, 1982, p.2: the Hersfeld tithe surveys of 880-899 show these fortresses.
  5. Leyser, 1982, pps:15 and 22, citing in particular the chronicler Widukind.
  6. Leyser, 1982, p.20-23.
  7. Leyser, 1982, pps:13 and 51-67.
  8. Portal, 1965/69, p.70.
  9. Gurney, Gene, Kingdoms of Europe, New York, 1982, p.506-7. ISBN 0-517-543958
  10. Previté-Orton, C.W., The Shorter Cambridge Medieval History, Cambridge University Press, U.K., 1952, vol.2, p.743.
  11. Brooke, Christopher, Europe in the Central Middle Ages 962-1154, 2nd edition, London, 1987, pps:58-9 and 69.
  12. Brooke, 1987, p.60.
  13. Davies, Norman, Vanished Kingdoms, London, 2011, p.338. ISBN 978-1-846-14338-0
  14. Marriott, Sir J.A.R., M.A., and Robertson, Sir Charles Grant, CVO., LL.D., MA., The Evolution of Prussia, Clarendon press, Oxford, revised edition, 1946, p.40-1.
  15. Brooke, 1987, p.249.
  16. Davies, 2011, p.338.
  17. He married his daughter, Anastasia (d.1317) to Duke Heinrich 1st of Mecklenburg (d.1302). See:"The Marriage of Borwin of Rostock and Cristina of Scotland" by Andrew B W MacEwan, in Foundations the journal of the Foundation for Medieval Genealogy. vol.7, June 2015, p.7. ISSN 1479-5078
  18. Mason, John Brown, The Danzig Dilemma, Stanford University Press, 1946, p.14-15.
  19. Baedeker, Karl, Austria-Hungary, London, 1905, p.277.
  20. Previté-Orton, C.W., Litt.D., F.B.A., A History of Europe from 1198 to 1378, London, 1937, p.169: direct quote of entire paragraph.
  21. Marriott & Robertson, 1946, p.46.
  22. Davies, 2011, p.336-8.
  23. Marriott & Robertson, 1946, p.46-49.
  24. Leiven, Dominic, The End of Tsarist Russia, New York, 2015, pps:8, 38, 72. ISBN 978-0-670-02558-9
  25. Baedeker, 1905, p.427-8 for an excellent essay on the history and inhabitants of these provinces.
  26. Leiven, 2015, p.175.
  27. Leiven, 2015
  28. Forbath, Dr. Alexander, editor, Europe into the Abyss, "National Socialist Germany - Foreign Policy", London, 1938, p.333-4.
  29. Pribichevich, Stoyan, "The Nazi Drive to the East" in Foreign Policy Reports, October 1938.
  30. Pribichevich, Stoyan, Living Space - South-Eastern Europe, Heinemann, London, 1939.
  31. Baynes, N., editor, The Speeches of Adolf Hitler 1922-1939, Oxford University Press, vol.3, 1942, p.586, where in his Proclamation of 16th March 1939 dissolving the artificial state of Czecho-Slovakia, he states "for a millenium the territories of Bohemia and Moravia belonged to the living space (Lebensraum) of the german people."
  32. Trevor-Roper, Professor Hugh, Hitler's Table-Talk, Oxford University Press paperback, 1988.
  33. Hiden, John, The Baltic States and Weimar Ostpolitik, Cambridge University Press, UK, 1987, ISBN 0-521-32037-2
  34. Devi, Savitri, The Lightning and the Sun, 1958, pps:264 - 267