World War I's Mitteleuropa

Map of States of Mitteleuropa
States of Mitteleuropa (blue) and the larger cultural sphere (outlined) that in the late 19th century comprised the German Empire, Austria-Hungary, Switzerland, as well as Congress Poland and the Baltic governorates of the Russian Empire. (NordNordWest/Wikimedia Commons/CC ASA 3.0U)

Literally German for ‘Middle Europe’, there are a wide range of interpretations, but chief among them was the German plan for an empire in central and eastern Europe that would have been created had Germany won the First World War.

War Aims

In September 1914, a few months after the start of World War I, German Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg created the ‘September Programme’ which, along with other documents, set out a grandiose plan for post-war Europe.

It would be enacted if Germany was totally successful in the war, and at that point nothing was certain. A system called ‘Mitteleuropa’ would be created, an economic and customs union of central European lands that would be led by Germany (and to a lesser extent Austria-Hungary). As well as these two, Mitteleuropa would include German domination of Luxembourg, Belgium and their Channel Ports, the Baltic and Poland from Russia, and possibly France. There would be a sister body, Mittelafrika, in Africa, leading to German hegemony of both continents. That these war aims had to be invented after the war started is often used as a stick with which to beat the German command: they are chiefly blamed for starting the war and didn’t even know what they wanted beyond having threats from Russia and France removed.

It’s unclear exactly how far the German people supported this dream, or how seriously it was taken.

Indeed, the plan itself was allowed to fade as it became obvious the war would last a long time and may not be won by Germany at all. A variation emerged in 1915 when the Central Powers defeated Serbia and Germany proposed a Central European Federation be created, led by Germany, this time recognizing the needs of the war by placing all military forces under German command.

Austria-Hungary was still strong enough to object and the plan again faded.

Greed or Matching Others?

Why did Germany aim for a Mitteleuropa? To Germany’s west were Britain and France, a pair of countries with a vast global empire. To the east was Russia, which had a land empire stretching to the Pacific. Germany was a new nation and had missed out as the rest of Europe had carved the world up between them. But Germany was an ambitious nation and wanted an empire too. When they looked around them, they had the hugely powerful France directly west, but between Germany and Russia were eastern European states that could form an empire. English language literature racistly considered a European conquest as worse than their own global conquests, and painted Mitteleuropa as significantly worse. Germany had mobilized millions of people and suffered millions of casualties; they tried to come up with war aims to match.

In the end, we don’t know how far Mitteleuropa would have been created. It was dreamt up in a moment of chaos and action, but perhaps the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Russia in March 1918 is a clue, as this transferred a vast area of Eastern Europe to German control. It was their failure in the west that caused this infant empire to be erased.