Category: Wilhelm Groener

    Preparing to Fight the Last War? Maybe Not

    sketch of a big building

    Prussian War Academy ca, 1900 via Wikimedia Commons.

    I've been taking some time to think more about a slow-moving article on Wilhelm Groener I've been working on. It has received a big boost recently from the GHI's new focus on the history of knowledge.

    A truism holds that generals prepare to fight the last war, not the next one. Unable to peer into the future, they make do with the lessons of the past. Fair enough, perhaps, but this common-sense wisdom presupposes that military leaders will necessarily understand the salient features of the last war without preconceptions about war and officering affecting their discernment. In other words, the truism fails to account for the effects of prior training, experience, and acculturation in the production of knowledge about war. Instead, it implicitly assumes the existence of universal soldierdom, as if officering and soldiering—but for technology—were not culturally and historically contingent.

    Wilhelm Groener (1867–1939) offers a case in point. A general staff officer in the German army who rose to prominence quickly in the First World War, Groener became an important spokesman in the interwar period for the so-called Schlieffen school, offering an interpretation of the war seemingly at odds with what actually happened. Instead of deriving new lessons from the stalemate, as his contemporary Erich Ludendorff did in a nightmarish vision of politics serving war instead of vice versa, Groener doubled down on the knowledge he had internalized in peacetime Wilhelmine Germany. Issuing from neither a military outsider nor an original thinker and steeped in antebellum military thoughtways and culture, Groener’s interpretation of the First World War can be analyzed in relation to his prewar training and wartime experiences to show the inner logic of the professional military knowledge and culture in which he was steeped.

    Command Culture by Jörg Muth

    Last week I read Jörg Muth, Command Culture.1 The book’s main subject is about training U.S. officers for war, and it draws on the German officer corps in the interwar period for its useful comparisons. I can’t offer a review, because my own expertise lies more with the Imperial German officer corps. Nonetheless, the book deserves some comment.

    This was both an enjoyable and a frustrating read, but the frustrating part had more to do with my own preferences. Muth (who I know and value) takes West Point in this period to task for some pretty lousy education (Fort Leavenworth, too) and awful hazing. I have no problem with such well-sourced assertions, but I can’t help but think there might have been a deeper cultural logic to these things that Muth does not seek to uncover, because it apparently did not relate to military effectiveness, which is his topic, not, for example, the deeper character of leadership, education, and masculinity in the United States more generally.

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    Catch-Up Reading and Article Idea

    Am I the only one who can get years behind on relevant readings? Silly me let teaching and editing get in the way of basic readings. But maybe I'm not the only one who gets behind. As much as I appreciate discussions about how digital scholarship could speed up the dissemination of research results, sometimes I'm quite glad these results come out slowly through journals, and that these journals are available online through the library for me to look at as time permits. I'm trying to get caught back up in a more systematic way, so that I can't use earning money as an excuse for missing new scholarship on certain topics. Still, we are talking about dead people who aren't going anywhere, right? And the pace of historical research is slow anyway. Besides, how often are the results of historical research advanced in real time? It's not like cable news channels and NPR are standing in line to review our output. Even blogging, tweeting, facebooking scholars have their own research projects to do, so that they can't pay attention to every new development of their colleagues at the moment it occurs.

    The Schlieffen Plan debate has been dragging on for over a decade, so maybe I shouldn't feel too bad that I have only now read Gerhard Gross's excellent intervention (available in both German and English), in which he explains the whereabouts and wherefores of Schlieffen sources better than anyone I have seen (at least for those deeply immersed in the problem), not to mention addresses Zuber on his own chosen operational turf—albeit with politics as well as incredibly thorough archival work and careful, nuanced analysis. Now I need to make time to explore the differences between his Schlieffen and the one I see Zuber's other historiographical opponents offering, especially regarding the question of "preventive war" in 1905. But that will have to wait. Right now, I'm more interested in Schlieffen's image of war, what he imparted to the General Staff, and how. And I'm interested in matching Groener's timeline against this, because what I'm really trying to get at is the evolution of Wilhelm Groener's Schlieffen Plan, that is, how he understood and wrote about Schlieffen over the years.

    By the way, how does "Wilhelm Groener's Schlieffen Plan" sound for an article title? That's what I've decided I'll write first.

    From Dissertation to . . . What?

    I have just finished reading William Germano, From Dissertation to Book (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), which I can recommend to any scholar, not just those writing their first books. In my case, it offers food for thought about editing and writing in general. More importantly, it has helped encourage me to take up my research again, even if that probably won't lead to a book.

    That has meant picking up the old dissertation—"Wilhelm Groener, Officering, and the Schlieffen Plan" (Georgetown University, 2006)—and rereading it with an eye to developing article ideas and a modest research agenda for the next couple years. Since I plan to reflect on this work here, let me begin by referring to some old blog posts originally published on Clio and Me that offer essential context:

    Finally, my dissertation abstract and table of contents provide a useful starting point. And if you find you must read the whole dissertation, that is now available at the Internet Archive.

    Stumbling onto 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?

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    Wilhelm Groener (1867–1939)

    Meet Wilhelm Groener, an unassuming Swabian of modest social provenance who rose to the number two position in the Imperial German army by the end of the First World War. Here he is in about 1920, soon after his retirement from the army in the young Weimar Republic.

    Groener, the subject of my dissertation, informed Kaiser Wilhelm II in November 1918 that the army would not follow him back to Prussia to fight a civil war to quash the revolution. Confronted with this reality, Wilhelm II abdicated and fled to the Netherlands.

    By rights Groener’s boss, Chief of the General Staff Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, should have delivered the bad news, but he was a Prussian officer and nobleman, imbued in the traditions of military service to his supreme war lord, the Prussian king and German emperor. Hindenburg did not have the nerve.

    Groener was present at the death of another German regime too. He served as minister of defense from 1928 to 1932. Near the end of this tenure he was also acting minister of the interior in the Brüning cabinet. In this capacity he pushed to outlaw Hitler’s brown-shirts, the S.A., which gave right-wing extremists in the army a chance to withdraw their support of the defense minister and prevail upon President Hindenburg to withdraw his confidence from Groener, who then resigned. Soon the rest of the cabinet did too, and Hitler came to power less than a year later.

    Groener witnessed and participated in some of modern Germany’s key political events, but that is not what I wrote about in my dissertation. Instead, I focussed on the relationship between his social background and military career, which was interesting precisely because he rose to such prominence in an organization alleged to have been the exclusive playground of the Prussian nobility.

    At least that is how my research started.