From the Grand Duchy of Lithuania to the Belarusian Democratic Republic: the Idea of Belarusian Statehood, 1915-1919

During the first decades of the 20th century Belarusian national identity was in its infancy. Nationalist agitation was confined to a small elite. The political situation reflected a condition of widespread poverty and economic underdevelopment. The Russian imperial government left a legacy of a low level of education, few schools, and widespread illiteracy. Early national activists, such as the circle around the journal Naša Niva (1906-1915) argued for the use of the Belarusian language in all aspects of life.
This article is a study of the development of Belarusian nationalism during the German occupation of the Belarusian lands between 1915-1919, particularly the political developments in the western Belarusian lands under German occupation. Reorganised as the so-called land of Ober Ost, Western Belarus experienced an extended period of German control, starting in 1915, and lasting until the defeat of the Central Powers. What was the impact of the breakout of war and massive dislocation of people beginning in 1915? What were the German policies in the occupied Belarusian lands and did these facilitate national mobilisation? What were the aims and ambitions of nationalist activists, and why did they fail to establish a viable state in 1918 whereas Lithuanians succeeded? Those questions are at the forefront of this article.