Terence Zuber, Military History, and Culture

I recently noticed that the English translation to 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 unfortunate 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.

Why Atrocities?

I study European history, so why did I post about Sand Creek earlier today? And why excerpt seemingly gratuitous violence? I have no expertise in U.S. history, but I am interested in the history of violence per se, which can reveal a lot about peoples and cultures at a given point in history. Further, the U.S. Civil War has some important structural similarities to the Franco-Prussian War, and perhaps to other European wars in the mid nineteenth century.1 Given the causal relationship between the U.S. Civil War and the expansion of violence against Native Americans out west, there might be a case, for example, to include France’s nineteenth-century colonial conflicts in such a comparison. However, my main interest relates to cultural taboos—or lack thereof—about specific kinds of violence against specific categories of people, assuming those people have not been perceived to violate any important taboos themselves.

In this particular case, the willingness to kill women and children indiscriminately underlines how little value these people’s lives had in the eyes of their butchers. Further, it suggests how utterly alien these Indians were in the eyes of their attackers, how far outside the attackers’ own ethnos or kin-culture community.2 Indeed, in Michael Fellman’s account of the guerrilla conflict in Missouri during the Civil War, white fighting men broke more cultural taboos in their fight against Indians than they did when committing violence against free and enslaved black people.3

At the same time, Congressional testimony points to other attitudes towards the slaughtered Native Americans. We hear of white men with native partners and sons, for instance, although the latter were called “half breed.” The paternalistic congressmen investigating the atrocity were also humane, in a certain sense, but a question about how long the witness-cum-translator had lived with the Indians suggests how different they that congressman perceived him to be. At the same time, commentators who sided with the Colorado troops responsible for the massacre portrayed their opponents as brave. Of course, it was safer to make the women and children seem like incidental casualties of a battle, but the self-respect of fighting men also requires a worthy opponent. Without one, the act of killing brings no honor and—we are learning in recent conflicts—can leave deep scars in the soldier who pulls the trigger.4

Given the tiny source base behind this post, it only represents an approach to such violence, nothing more, especially since such an approach must also consider the specific historical context of this awful American story.


  1. See Stig Förster and Jörg Nagler, eds., On the Road to Total War: The American Civil War and the German Wars of Unification, 1861–1871 (Washington, DC: Cambridge Universtiy Press, 1997). 
  2. On kin-culture communities, see Azar Gat with Alexsander Yakobson, Nations: The Long and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013). 
  3. Michael Fellman, Inside War: The Guerilla Conflict in Missouri during the American Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989). 
  4. See Sharon E. French, “The Code of the Warrior,” The Harmon Memorial Lectures in Military History 47 (United States Airforce Academy: Colorado, 2004). French has published a book by the same title. 

Sand Creek

In the New York Times, Ned Blackhawk reminds us, “It’s the 150th anniversary of one of the most appalling massacres of Indians ever.”

In terms of sheer horror, few events matched Sand Creek. Pregnant women were murdered and scalped, genitalia were paraded as trophies, and scores of wanton acts of violence characterize the accounts of the few Army officers who dared to report them. . . .

Sand Creek, Bear River and the Long Walk remain important parts of the Civil War and of American history. But in our popular narrative, the Civil War obscures such campaigns against American Indians. In fact, the war made such violence possible . . .

See the full article here. There are more details in the Smithsonian Magazine, and a few sources from the time here.


Hat tip: @myHNN and @wcronen.

Digitized Resources for World War I Research

At Portal Militärgeschichte, Markus Pöhlmann reports that a joint German-Russian digitization project has made available a substantial number of World War One–era German military documents at the Russian defense ministry’s central archive. There is also a digitized collection of the German secret services from 1912 to 1945.

Additionally, the multi-volume Der Weltkrieg 1914-1918 (The World War), published by the Reichsarchiv in excruciating detail, is now available digitally thanks to the Upper Austrian State Library in Linz. As Pöhlmann points out, this work continues to be essential for operational history because it was written on the basis of documents that were largely destroyed in World War Two.

Finally, the Austrian-Hungarian counterpart has been digitized in Linz too: Österreich-Ungarns letzter Krieg 1914-1918 (Austria-Hungary’s Last War).