Stumbling Upon a Dissertation Topic

Historical scholarship can be as much the result of accident as planning. How on earth did I come to write a dissertation on Wilhelm Groener? I thought I liked doing social history, not biography. If I studied the army, I was more apt to find common soldiers interesting, not a general who assumed operational control of the whole army at the end of the First World War and who people addressed as “Your Excellency.” I was also not particularly interested in military-technical questions. Yes, I found the questions about humanity in warfare that I had explored in my M.A. thesis compelling. But German war planning for the First World War? And the German general staff’s experience of the war? These were not my things either, or so I thought. Besides, were not many meters of library shelf-space filled with books on these problems?

I first looked at Wilhelm Groener in a research seminar whose theme was the German bourgeoisie in Imperial Germany. Historians were devoting much renewed attention to this social class in the 1990s, because earlier interpretations had blamed the German middle class for not being middle-class enough and not doing what any bourgeoisie supposedly should have done, which was to put Prussia’s powerful nobility in its place and establish a proper constitutional monarchy. Germany’s unfortunate authoritarian modern history was attributed to an abstract process of maldevelopment, a German special path or Sonderweg, along which the bourgeoisie had failed to do what it allegedly had done in Britain and France, that is, rise up in a bourgeois revolution that made everything normal. New research on the middle class was beginning to undermine this view. Far from aping the nobility, the bourgeoisie had developed a self-confident, vibrant class culture. Our task in the seminar was to examine this research and consider its implications for understanding the broader outline—or grand narrative—of modern German history.

I eventually decided to concentrate on the officer corps, because it played a key role in the narrative of German exceptionalism. The nobility had dominated the officer corps and made it an illiberal force in society more generally. According to this narrative, birth, not military know-how, had played a decisive role in military careers. Hence, not only had the military been illiberal, but its leaders had allegedly not kept up with the times. Parallel to this version of the officer corps, however, existed another in which the German general staff had been the preeminent professional military organization in the world. Which, if any, of these interpretations was right? Here was an opportunity to examine the military in a mainstream historiographical context. The German bourgeoisie was receiving a lot of attention in the historiography, but the military—so central to the German Sonderweg thesis—remained largely untouched by this research.

So I did a comparative research paper on August Keim, Erich Ludendorff, and Wilhelm Groener, all commoners and all general staffers in Imperial Germany. I chose these men because there were enough published primary sources in Washington, DC to make a research paper viable. I showed that these men all had adhered to the mainstream bourgeois values that the new historiography identified, and I demonstrated that no contradiction between a military and a bourgeois ethos had existed. These commoners had not been “feudalized” by their aristocratic comrades-in-arms.

Considering these issues without reference to the First World War was unthinkable, so I also explored Keim’s, Ludendorff’s, and Groener’s images of war. After all, the feudal interpretation of the officer corps included a charge of aristocratic anachronism. Unfortunately, I was unable to link their social backgrounds and images of war, except to point out that their images of war comported with contemporary developments. Nonetheless, the work proved fruitful enough to suggest the possibility of a dissertation on one of these officers, Wilhelm Groener. I could use his biography as a vehicle for analyzing the sociology and culture of the Imperial German officer corps.


This blog post originally appeared on my old history blog, Clio and Me, on this date.