Historiographical Impasse

I have had to withdraw from an interesting handbook project because of excessive overlap with two other chapters. My topic was on the matrix of gender, war, and nation in European wars in the 1850s through the 1870s. Given the limited historiography, I chose a thematic approach, but that produces the undesired overlap. What is needed instead, I’m told, is a gendered history of these specific wars. Leaving aside the insufficient historiography, to say nothing of the challenges inherent in collaborations of this kind, where project requirements and individual research have to somehow come together and adapt to changing parameters, the impasse I’ve reached seems to have deeper epistemological roots.

Making sense of the matrix of gender, nation, and war in the European conflicts of the mid-nineteenth century appears to involve contradictory historiographical impulses. On the one hand, the revolutions, insurrections, and wars of this era represented discrete political events in specific temporal, geographic, social, cultural, economic, and technological contexts. On the other hand, solidarities or identities represented by the nation emerged and achieved hegemonic status over much longer periods of time (even if war acted as a catalyst), to say nothing of the resilient normative and structural operations of gender in human societies.

If one scholar has successfully identified a discursive relationship among nationalism, military service, and the masculine construction of citizenship in Prussia during the Wars of Liberation against Napoleon, making the leap from those discourses to changes in gender norms (including the shifting meaning of military service in a man’s life) and how gender operated in social hierarchies is another matter. Depending on the region of Europe, it could take many decades for such discourses to manifest themselves in ordinary people’s lives.

These contradictory historiographical impulses are also evident in gender history itself. If the field (earlier conceived as women’s history) had initially promised to challenge and subvert conventional periodization schemes, the professional requirements of specialization in specific eras and regions has tended to reproduce those schemes instead.

If I have been unable to navigate these tensions and contradictions within the limited scope left open to me in the handbook project and given the limitations of the historiography itself, I nonetheless find myself wondering how they might be addressed within event-driven history more generally. Clearly one can explore the operations of gender in a specific war, but is it possible to draw conclusions about changes in gender norms and gender orders without taking a much longer view? I am skeptical.

History and the Packaged Gnocchi

One evening after work recently, I was half-starved and wanted something I could cook quickly. I saw some packaged gnocchi in the cupboard, made by De Cecco, which I thought would fit the bill, until I started reading the directions. Unfortunately, these were quite long, and they mentioned all kinds of ingredients not in the package, so I gave up. I didn’t want a detailed recipe. I just wanted to know how to cook the gnocchi. A few days later, while editing an English translation of a book about Italians and food in the modern era, I learned something that made me go back to the gnocchi.1

In the early post–World War II decades, when the Italian food industry was trying to get consumers—in this context mainly women—to buy its new, ready-made food products, it decided that offering detailed preparation suggestions for the integration of other foods into its packaged products would improve the image of the new products, that is, make them more legitimate and appealing. But consumers bought ready-made foods for their convenience, not for the opportunity to prepare something elaborate. If one wanted to make something more involved, one could do it the old-fashioned way, from scratch, even if one might use certain intermediate manufactured goods like bullion bouillon cubes or dry pasta.2

With this nugget about Italy’s food history in hand, I went back to the gnocchi package whose directions had thwarted me earlier. I still found only one very detailed paragraph, nothing short about the gnocchi themselves, as pasta packages in this country have led me to expect. But this time I decided I had better skip ahead in the directions, and, sure enough, what I needed was there, buried near the end: “In the meantime, cook the gnocchi in plenty of boiling salted water, remove them as they rise to the surface . . .” So that was what the “ready in 2 min.” label on the front of the package was referring to. Apparently this step is such common knowledge in Italy that there is no reason to highlight it in readily accessible instructions, even if the manufacturer still feels the need to make its product more attractive to potential customers with a detailed recipe.

But the package in my hand was for the American market, so why attach the same, apparently decades-old assumptions about food and gender in Italy to it? It hardly makes sense, except if explained in terms of the product’s postwar Italian history. Language from that context seems to have been translated into English without giving much thought to this context. Or is this a way to market something very ordinary, little potato dumplings, as something special? In any case, I’m pretty sure that the packaged gnocchi my European spouse bought for the pantry still carry part of their history in the accompanying directions, which at least I can read now.

  1. Emanuela Scarpellini, A tavola! Gli italiani in 7 pranzi (Rome, 2012). The first part of the title is a summons to come eat, and the second part translates as “The Italians in Seven Meals.” The book begins approximately with Italian unification in 1861 and runs to the present. The English translation will be published by Palgrave Macmillan later this year. 
  2. Scarpellini, chap. 5. 

Terence Zuber, Military History, and Culture

I recently noticed that the English translation to of Der Schlieffenplan: Analysen und Dokumente, edited by Hans Ehlert, Michael Epkenhans, and Gerhard P. Groß, is now available from the University Press of Kentucky under the title The Schlieffen Plan: International Perspectives on the German Strategy for World War I. Interestingly, Terence Zuber, who sparked much of the debate on German war planning prior to the Great War, declined to allow his chapter from the German original to be included in this English translation.1 It wasn’t his best piece anyway, far more peevish than usual, and there is plenty of his work on the supposedly nonexistent Schlieffen Plan in English anyway. Be that as it may, if Zuber’s thesis about Schlieffen’s war planning has been conclusively disproven, the assumptions underlying his work have received less attention.2 That matters because his work on Schlieffen continues to be widely read and discussed, having made a big splash when it first came out. Moreover, he continues to write and publish books on German military history.

Zuber makes his historiographical assumptions explicit on the front page of his website (terencezuber.com) in a section called “Philosophy of writing military history.” The text seems to be for the benefit of potential new readers, but that does not make it any less sincere or interesting. The first important factor he lists is “the careful analysis of primary source material,” which he learned during his graduate studies in Würzburg, Germany. Zuber is talking about the venerable historiographical tradition of source criticism as taught to us in the nineteenth century by Leopold von Ranke. The historian, according to Ranke, is supposed to use primary sources in order to write about “how things really were” (wie es eigentlich gewesen ist).

Ranke’s ideas presuppose that the historian can read and understand the sources in context and that their meaning is immutable. If the objectivity question is much more complicated than Ranke’s phrase suggests, trying to understand “how things really were” still informs the professional historian’s ethos.3 But how do we meet this standard on the basis of imperfect documentary testimony? How do we go about reading and interpreting sources whose meanings are frequently ambiguous?

“In military history,” according to Zuber, getting at the past as it actually was “means above all the evaluation of training, doctrine, plans, intelligence estimates, orders, weather, terrain and tactical combat.” I can live with that assertion for the moment, even if it ignores important factors, especially politics. But how can Zuber be so sure that he understands the sources whereas his historical predecessors and present-day detractors do not?

His answer is simple: “As a professional infantry officer, I am able to apply twenty years of military experience to this analysis including three years with a German panzer division. I work through military history as though it were an actual war plan or military operation.” On the face of it, the assumption that his military background is historiographically relevant seems at least plausible insofar as the tools and techniques of warfare in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were not so far removed from Zuber’s Cold War–era training in land warfare that they could not be understood from that point of view.4 Moreover, German operational thought—however vaguely defined and varyingly understood—enjoyed respect on both sides of the Atlantic long after the First World War.5 But is that enough? Does Zuber’s military background really guarantee the accuracy of his analysis of military documents from an earlier era?

In his own words, Zuber “work[s] through military history as though it were an actual war plan or military operation.” The key element here is Zuber himself. He is playing out World War One–era military scenarios on the basis of his own military-professional judgement, which he developed in the 1970s and 1980s. This statement certainly comports with an unfortunately common assumption in military history and in writing about war more generally, namely that soldiering is a timeless phenomenon, aside from the obvious changes in technology, organization, and (if the historian is really doing his or her job) politico-economic basis. But as John Lynn shows in his book Battle, there is no such thing as the “universal soldier.” Soldiers and their institutions exist in specific historical contexts, and they change over time. These changes run deep, encompassing not only the externalities of the soldiers’ and militaries’ worlds, but also how soldiers and armies perceive the world around them.

Even if the military historian is concerned exclusively with the age-old question of how well armies fought, Lynn’s argument applies: “the way militaries think is the most fundamental element of their effectiveness.”6 We cannot understand what officers in the past were seeing and understanding, unless we first grasp how they thought. Indeed, Lynn demonstrates “the influence of conceptual culture on the reality of combat” for a variety of cultures and eras.7 The upshot of culture in general terms is that two hypothetical armies might be similarly equipped, but that in no way means they will understand the same set of circumstances similarly. The choices that the commanders of these armies perceive are shaped by culture, whether that is military culture in the broadest sense, specific aspects of military culture such as strategic culture and leadership culture, institution-specific cultures, or broader cultural “givens” that trancend the boundaries of the military.

Without accounting for culture, Zuber’s efforts to “work through military history as though it were an actual war plan or military operation” run the risk of amounting to little more than a war game set in the past, but based on modern-day assumptions. That is how Schlieffen studied the ancient Battle of Cannae, but it is no way for the historian to work who aspires to understand “how things really were.” Yes, there is a need for good, detail-oriented histories on war planning and military operations, but those histories must take into account the different historical contexts, including the professional culture in which operational decisions were made.

  1. See p. 14 of this translation, which was visible to me on the preview offered by Google Books. 
  2. Besides offering well-reasoned arguments based on solid evidence, the book reprints sources not considered by Zuber. See also pp. 24–52 of my dissertation, which analyzes the debate as it stood right before the German edition of this book appeared in 2006. 
  3. See Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The Objectivity Question and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988). 
  4. According to his website, Zuber served from 1970 to 1990. 
  5. See Gerhard P. Groß, Mythos und Wirklichkeit: Geschichte des operativen Denkens im deutschen Heer von Moltke d.Ä. bis Heusinger (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 2012). 
  6. See John A. Lynn, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture, rev. ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2008), Kindle ed., preface (“Requiem for the Universal Soldier”). 
  7. Lynn, Battle, e.g., chap. 4 (last sentence of “Images and Ideals of Combat in the Age of the Enlightenment”). On war and culture, see also Wayne E. Lee, ed., Warfare and Culture in World History (New York: New York University Press, 2011), and Williamson Murray, “Does Military Culture Matter?,” Orbis 43, no. 1 (1999): 27–42. 

German Scholarly Monographs

At the end of his English-language review of Anne Sudrow’s long book (in German) about the shoe in National Socialism, Neil Gregor has some choice remarks about German academic publishing, particularly dissertations and the second advanced advanced dissertation (Habilitation) that would-be professors in Germany have to write.1 Of course, he does not mean all or even most scholarly books in Germany, but as an editor and historian, I do have to deal with the tendency he describes rather a lot. I’m sure translators will feel Gregor’s pain too.

Inevitably, there are sections in an 800-page book where the reader’s spirits flag, and where one wonders whether some editing down might not have improved the readability of the book at little cost to the comprehensiveness of its argument. No self-respecting German Ph.D. monograph would spare its reader a fifty-page discussion of the state of research, Fragestellung, and methodology; a suitably earnest discussion of the definition of a shoe is also, of course, a must. Yet life is short, and the half-hour I devoted to mastering the different kinds of shoe polish available to consumers in the 1920s is a half-hour of my life that I will not get back.

On the other hand, scholarly monographs, like shoes, have their own product history—they can no more be seen as isolated objects, standing outside of time and space, than the things with laces that we wear on our feet. In that sense, any such critical remarks are as much a comment on the academic habitus that consistently produces such books as it is on the book itself. The culture of subsidy which permeates German scholarly publishing, combined with a scholarly environment which places such emphasis on thoroughness, can all too easily permit indulgence. Rather like the German manufacturers this book describes—ambivalent about their customers, and irritated by their habits—one often feels that German academic authors ought to take their readers a bit less for granted. Who knows, they might then, like those shoe manufacturers this book brings to life so superbly, even produce objects that can compete without subsidy in the marketplace.

Keep in mind, Gregor begins the review by stating that Sudrow’s book “is one of the most interesting things I can remember reading,” and the bulk of his piece shows he means this. He is not criticizing Sudrow in the above comments, but rather particular weaknesses in an otherwise excellent academic system. I’m quoting him here because he made me laugh, recognizing, as I did, Gregor’s pain, but cognizant that the production of such pain is not a monopoly of German academia.