Refuting Straw Men and Explaining What Happened

In a recent German History forum, Paul Lerner offers an interesting aside: “I used the medical Sonderweg as more or less a straw man in my 2003 book on German psychiatry, but I found that even as I refuted it, the need to explain the unique path of German medicine kept arising.”1 These words speak to me, because I used Groener’s biography to refute the rather untenable interpretation of a “feudalized” bourgeoisie in the Kaiserreich, even in the officer corps, but taking down that straw man hasn’t offered a satisfying answer about the meaning of Groener’s middle-class cultural orientations for our understanding of the Imperial German officer corps.

I also used Terence Zuber’s interpretation of Schlieffen’s doctrine and war planning as a foil against which to compare what Groener knew about war before 1914, as well as what he experienced in the opening acts of World War I. In this case, I was somewhat more successful in saying what actually happened and why, but far too much of the analysis and narrative was aimed at Zuber. That was still necessary in 2006, when I completed the thing, but now I am not so sure. At any rate, it can’t be the only point of an article about war planning and conceptions of war in the Great General Staff.

Although it is relatively easy to demolish straw men, I can’t stop there. I also need to offer more viable explanations in their place. I have a fair idea of how to do that in the case of Imperial German war-planning, but I’m less certain about the indirect relationship between class and professionalism that led me to challenge stereotypes of the Wilhelmine officer corps in the first place.


1 Cornelius Borck et al., “Forum: The ‘German Question’ in the History of Science and the ‘Science Question’ in German History,” German History 29, no. 4 (December 2011): 631.