Germany: The Military and Militarism

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Prussian (and later German) Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, right, with General Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, left, and General Albrecht von Roon, centre. Although Bismarck was a civilian politician and not a military officer, he wore a military uniform as part of the Prussian militarist culture of the time. From a painting by Carl Steffeck

The military had always played a key role in Prussia, and in a Reich forged by blood and iron it was the central institution. The German Reich was a military state, German society permeated by the military. “Human beings,” Bismarck said “begin at the rank of lieutenant.” The Prussian army was by far the largest of the four armies, and although the three other “contingents” owed allegiance to the kings of Bavaria, Württemberg, and Saxony respectively, they all came under the kaiser’s command in time of war. Only the Bavarian army remained independent in peacetime. The three contingents followed the Prussian lead in organization, instruction, and weaponry. The military budget and questions such as those of the size of the army and length of service were settled at the federal level. The army was thus Prussian rather than German, the Prussian minister of war, as chairman of the Bundesrat’s Military Commission, served as a de facto federal minister. The military thus played an essential role in strengthening Prussia’s domination over the Reich.

The military was outside the constitution, beyond parliamentary control, answerable only to the Prussian king and kaiser with his absolute power of command (Kommandogewalt). It was every bit as concerned with the enemy within as it was with its enemies beyond the borders of the Reich. It was ready to crush a revolution, break a strike, and disperse a demonstration, and even to instigate a putsch. It was not bound to consult the civil authorities before acting.

All matters pertaining to personnel were dealt with by the Military Cabinet, which worked closely with the kaiser. William II was to surround himself with a number of military cronies who formed an informal maison militaire of considerable power and influence that served further to strengthen his power of command. Mere civilians, who were deemed to have no understanding of military arcana, had no place within these circles.

The Prussian minister of war had responsibility for the budget, administration, and military justice. Inevitably there was enduring friction between the ministry and the military cabinet. Since the latter was a direct expression of the kaiser’s power of command, the minister answerable to the Reichstag, a number of important responsibilities were shifted from the ministry to the military cabinet. At the same time the spiraling cost of the military, particularly after 1898 when Germany began to build a high seas fleet, meant that the Reichstag had a far greater say in military affairs. It held the purse strings and could determine how the funds were allocated. The war minister could no longer afford to hide behind the sacrosanct power of command and had to submit to rigorous questioning by parliamentarians. This in turn alienated the war minister from the kaiser and his entourage, who were alarmed by the prospect of the army becoming subordinated to parliament. Any concession to the Reichstag was taken as a sign of weakness, so that both the war minister and the chancellor were caught between the need to appease the monarch ‘ s obsession with his power of command and the necessity for a degree of cooperation with the Reichstag. The slightest hint of a compromise with parliament caused an immediate hardening of the military front, so that by 1914 the Reichstag was only able to make very modest gains. The army remained arrogantly aloof, intensely hostile to parliament, a state within the state.

Although the kaiser, with his power of command, had absolute control over the military, it was hopelessly divided and lacking in any sense of direction. The war ministry, the general staff, the Military Cabinet, and the maison militaire incessantly wrangled over areas of competence. This was compounded by inter – service rivalry with the navy, which in turn was riven with internal strife between different offices. There was no coherent military planning, no consistency in armaments procurement, no serious preparation for a war which most people in responsible positions felt was both inevitable and desirable.

Nowhere was this more blatantly obvious that in the general staff, whose carmine – striped demigods planned and plotted in splendid isolation and consequently to disastrous effect. The war was hardly over before the general staff began planning for a preventive war, first against France, then also against Russia. As long as Bismarck was chancellor the preventive war enthusiasts in the general staff were held in check. He found political solutions to the crises of 1874/5 and 1886/7 when the general staff was raring to go. Moltke’s successor, Count Alfred von Waldersee, argued in favor of a war against Russia, combined with a coup d’é tat against the Social Democrats, during his tenure from 1887 to 1891. He too was frustrated, first by Bismarck then by Caprivi.

Bismarck fought long and hard to keep the military under political control. His successors had to deal with William II, a saber – rattling poseur who lacked the strength of character to stand up to an increasingly influential military. The kaiser bypassed the foreign office and relied on the reports from the military and naval attachés, who painted a grim picture of the bellicose intentions of Germany’s neighbors. The chancellor and the civilians were never consulted when the general staff drew up its war plans, and were excluded from the “War Council” of 1912.

Waldersee ‘ s successor, Count Alfred von Schlieffen, turned Clausewitz on his head by arguing that war was far too serious a business for politicians to have any say in its conduct. The eponymous plan on which he worked throughout his term of office envisaged an invasion of France through neutral Belgium and Holland. The plan was shown in its various versions to three chancellors – Hohenlohe, Bülow, and Bethmann Hollweg – but none of these men saw fit to examine its fateful political consequences. They felt it was inappropriate for mere civilians to question the expertise of a man who was widely regarded as a strategist of genius, a worthy successor to the great Moltke. Apart from a vague plan for an offensive in the east, the Ostaufmarschplan , which was never seriously considered and was dropped entirely in 1913, the German army had only one war plan: an attack on France that was almost bound to involve Britain, because of the invasion of neutral Belgium, compounded by Germany ‘ s naval ambitions. The proposal to invade neutral Holland was later dropped by Schlieffen’s successor, the younger Moltke.

It was not only the civilians who were excluded from discussions about the details of military planning. Germany’s ally Austria – Hungary was kept completely in the dark. It was only in 1909 during the Bosnian crisis that hints were dropped that they were planning an offensive in the west. At the same time Moltke promised his Austrian counterpart, Conrad von Hötzendorf, that Germany would stand by Austria under any circumstances should it become involved in a war in the Balkans. The chief of the general staff was here clearly exceeding his remit, and was making a political commitment of incalculable consequence. The defensive Dual Alliance of 1879 was thus converted into a blank check for Austria to attack Serbia, even at the risk of Russian intervention, at which point Germany would join in by attacking France through Belgium. Britain would then probably be involved and Europe plunged into a terrible war the length and outcome of which many experts were hesitant to predict.

The army never consulted the navy, which in turn cooked up a series of harebrained plans which a number of naval strategists felt were bound to fail. Neither branch of the military bothered to contemplate the consequence of failing to break the British blockade. A number of far – sighted soldiers thought that the Schlieffen Plan was at best a highly risky gamble. The military Cassandras who warned that the war was likely to be very lengthy were ignored. No preparations were made for such an eventuality.

The military was determined to remain outside the constitution by insisting that the power of command was sacrosanct. It separated itself from civilians by the exclusivity of its officer corps, its code of honor, and its separate code of law. This was to lead to a series of clashes with the civilians: over the reform of military law, over the size and social composition of the army, and over its relations with the civil authorities. Every such confrontation put the role of the military in question, thereby whittling away at its exclusive rights. As the foundations of the military monarchy were gradually undermined the fronts began to harden and the temptation to risk a war in the hope of overcoming these tensions became ever harder to resist.

In the 1860s two – thirds of the Prussian officer corps was aristocratic. In the general staff and the smarter regiments the proportion was far higher. As the army expanded, the percentage of aristocrats naturally declined, thus precipitating a lengthy debate as to whether further expansion would change the whole character of the army, water it down, and render it unreliable in the event of domestic unrest and revolution. Was “character “more important than “brains “? Could an army with a high percentage of liberal bourgeois officers and Social Democratic proletarian other ranks maintain law and order at home and pull off another Sedan? The Schlieffen Plan called for a mass army and the plan had no chance of success without one; but the larger the army the greater the importance of the Reichstag, thereby blurring the sharp division between civil and military. General Keim’s Army League, with its raucous populist clamor for substantial army increases, thus was viewed with horror by the kaiser’s military entourage. That the Navy League, Admiral Tirpitz’s child that took on a willful life of its own, had a similar plebiscitary moment was lost on the kaiser, with his obsession with battleships.

The distinction between aristocratic and bourgeois officers has often been exaggerated, and the distinction between technically minded modernizing bourgeois and conservative traditionalist aristocrat is inadmissible. The aristocracy, which still made up more than half the officers of the rank of colonel and above in the Prussian army in 1913, set the tone. Officers were selected not by competitive examination, but by regimental commanders. They picked men of like mind and background. Only the sons of “respectable” bourgeois with sound views were selected. Pay was so wretched that a lieutenant in the more highly regarded regiments needed a private income. Jews were excluded. As in the British army the tradesman’s entrance was tightly shut. Bourgeois officers aped the ways of their aristocratic brothers – in – arms and subscribed to a common code of honor, resolutely refusing to be outdone in overbearing arrogance and contempt for mere civilians with their vulgar materialism. The appalling young subalterns who were so brilliantly and savagely caricatured in the satirical magazine Simplizissimus were unfortunately all too common. The naval officer corps was slightly less exclusive, but here too the aristocracy was over – represented. For all the increasing importance of technical skills and training, both officer corps remained a caste rather than a profession. But it was a caste that was widely admired and emulated in a process of “double militarism ” whereby civilian society panegyrized military virtues, relished the prospect of war, enthusiastically supported the Army and Navy Leagues and forced its children into miniature military uniforms. The special status of the military and its widespread acceptance was a serious impediment to the modernization of the political system and the development of civil society.

1 thought on “Germany: The Military and Militarism

  1. Ooh I would have loved to have had a chance to follow in my grandfather’s Prussian military footsteps! For precious my mom is of 100% Prussian military descent! She’s beautiful her parents are awesome great great grandfather August Bischoff fought the Franco Prussian war. And she got to play in the pointed helmet’s of her father’s when she was little.

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