In a wonderful, engaging, and provocative new
work, Isabel Hull has provided the most wide-ranging re-visioning of
Imperial German military history in more than a decade. Here's the
controversial thesis: during the 1860s, the elder Moltke created a
German military culture which was divorced from political
considerations, devoted to risk, aggression, unrealistic planning
and wars of utter and complete annihilation. Unsurprisingly, such an
argument has attracted howls of "Sonderweg" ("special path") from
Hull's peers. To a certain extent they are correct, in that Hull
exaggerates the "uniqueness" of this history, both nationally and
chronologically. Nevertheless, the research and thinking in this
monograph are monumental and must be engaged. The incredible depth
and breadth of reading evidenced here, coupled with the excitement
of a fresh and challenging perspective, makes for a splendid book.
Hull begins her story, in Part I: "Suppression
Becomes Annihilation: Southwest Africa, 1904–1907," far from the
Prussian parade grounds, dropping us straight into the first
genocide of the twentieth century.
Immediately, Hull bucks the current colonial chic: instead of
substantiating the "Arendt thesis"—that brutal and racist practices
learned and performed in the colonies were transferred to Europe
(Namibia to Auschwitz), she claims that what Lothar von Trotha and
his German soldiers pursued in Africa, the encirclement and
attempted total destruction of the Herero people, was simply a
logical extension of what these men had already been trained to do
back home on those Prussian parade grounds.
Part II, "Military Culture," lays out this
institutional and cultural context. Already in the 1860s, Moltke
created a Prussian (soon to be German) military thinking focused on
radical wars of complete annihilation, without regard for
international law or the welfare of civilians. Alongside this, the
Prussian tradition of a military divorced from civilian control only
increased. Further, the general staff spent its time perfecting an
ever more grandiose "Schlieffen Plan" for an ever-growing mass army,
all the time further distancing its thinking from serious economic
or logistical advice. A giant, pathological monster was created.
In the book's final chapters, Part III: "The
First World War," the fruits of such a development are laid bare
through descriptions of the failure of the Schlieffen Plan, the
treatment of civilians in occupied Europe, the genocide in Armenia
(!), and finally the vainglorious Endkampf, the "final
battle" thinking of Ludendorff and company.
My first critique and/or praise is that this book
tells us much more about "European" military culture in this period
than the author would likely admit. For the purposes of comparative
history, France is often the most useful parallel to Germany, and
that is very much the case here. It is difficult to argue that Plan
17 was less "divorced from reality" than the Schlieffen Plan. Only
when absolutely forced by the horrendous human and logistical losses
of that Plan did the French Army realize that it had to negotiate
with its civilian government, and in 1915 finally allow some men to
work in the very factories needed for modern warfare. Further, the
disastrous and wholly unoriginal Chemin des Dames offensive two
years later proved that French military culture was immune to
criticism and bent solely on absolute victory, or the absolute
destruction of the enemy. Hull never makes clear exactly what she
means by "annihilation" in war or battle planning, for the military
objective of destroying the opponent's forces, rendering an army
incapable of further action, is the goal of every military. There
was nothing peculiarly "German" about possessing an incredibly
offensive mindset, as French military thinking in this very era was
also extremely offensive: l'offensive à l'outrance. Indeed,
Leonard Smith's excellent French military history of the war,
Between Mutiny and Obedience
proffers a Foucauldian discourse of pervasive offensive thinking.
And with regard to Endkampf—absurdly fighting on with no hope
of victory—one need only look at Paris in 1871. My praise here is
for the way Hull has so deftly described how such (European)
military thinking helps us understand and explain the inexplicable,
including the Somme and Passchendaele.
As for locating this aggressive "war of
annihilation" style of thinking in late nineteenth-century Germany,
one need only look at Prussian military history in the longue
durée in order to see that this is too restrictive. Robert
Citino's The German Way of War
charts a Prussian military culture long defined by its geography.
Surrounded by enemies, never able to "fall back" à la russe,
since the 1700s the Prussian military had always entered war knowing
that it must immediately and ruthlessly destroy its opponent.
Neither time nor material was ever the luxury of the Germans, and
the elder Moltke was only further refining an old concept.
Now we come to the need for that seemingly ever
more "absurd" planning evidenced by the German general staff, but
also by the French and Russian military planners. In focusing on the
cultural and institutional history of German war planning, Hull
neglects the overall shift in fin de siècle European military
theory: the truly monstrous size of all continental mass armies,
coinciding with the extraordinary pressure to move them as quickly
as possible, necessitated incredibly abstruse train scheduling and
logistical planning, schemes that unwittingly moved one ever further
from an "ideal" mobilization. One cannot invoke Prussian military
culture to explain what was arguably the greatest logistical fiasco
of the war: the Austro-Hungarian mobilization. Because of the
technological history of the war, with the incredible strain and
timing of mobilization, all armies tended to operate, on a certain
level, as self-perpetuating machines wholly without interest in the
nuances of diplomatic negotiation. To be sure, the Schlieffen Plan
was a bad plan, but any German plan was going to be both
fantastically detailed and impossible to prosecute correctly and
smoothly in an unprecedented environment.
The other typically useful comparative for German
history is Russia. Hull does an excellent job of detailing the
oppression of French and Belgian civilians under German occupation.
She again attributes this to a specifically German military culture
that evinced very little concern for civilian welfare. She then
asserts that Germans treated civilians in occupied Eastern Europe
equally nastily, but acknowledges being at odds on that score with
such specialists as Vejas Liulevicius, with his path-breaking War
Land on the Eastern Front.
Yet, if the argument is to be made that Germans were uniquely harsh
towards civilian populations, one must account for the Russian
Army's policies of scorched earth and forced deportations!
Crucially, Hull admits this in a sentence at the end of the book
(322). Finally, in the only chapter that simply does not work in
this book, the Armenian genocide is detailed. Hull's attempt to link
a German military culture to the "in country" German assessment of
the events fails, for, as Hull herself details, seemingly as many important
German military officers in the Ottoman Empire objected to the
genocide as condoned it. This chapter weakens the fundamental thesis
of the book.
For the most part, my criticisms here have simply
been to point out that Hull is telling a far larger story than she
admits. Her narrow focus on Germany, a necessary national analysis
that lays out in intricate detail the military culture of this
period, explains much more than the specific, national story of
Germany. In a short section near the end of the book (320–323), Hull
points out that there exists no comparative history of these
military cultures, and then briefly acknowledges the myriad ways the
German military culture she describes might, at times, have been
mirrored in the Allied armies. Thus, in an admirable pre-emptive nod
to critics like me, she demonstrates that she is aware of these
larger questions. I believe her findings do not so much explain why
Germany behaved the way it did as help us better understand why
Europe, tout court, could commit such an absurdist mass
suicide, almost daily, for four long years. Simply put, this book is
essential reading for all with an interest in modern history.
University of Windsor
 Princeton, NJ: Princeton U Pr, 1994.
 Lawrence: U Pr of Kansas, 2005.
 Cambridge: Cambridge U Pr, 2000.