“Global Knowledge Supply Chains” and “Civic engagement”

From a thought-provoking piece by the global historian Jeremy Adelman:

Global history preferred a scale that reflected its cosmopolitan self-yearnings. It also implicitly created what the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild in Strangers in Their Own Land (2016) called ‘empathy walls’ between globe-trotting liberals and locally rooted provincials. Going global often meant losing contact with – to borrow another of her bons mots – ‘deep stories’ of resentment about loss of and threat to local attachments. The older patriotic narratives had tethered people to a sense of bounded unity. The new, cosmopolitan, global narratives crossed those boundaries. But they dissolved the heartlanders’ ties to a sense of place in the world. In a political climate dominated by railing against Leviathan government, big banks, mega-treaties with inscrutable acronyms such as TPP, and distant Eurocrats, the pretentious drive to replace deep stories of near-mourning with global stories of distant connection was bound to face its limits. In the scramble to make Others part of our stories, we inadvertently created a new swath of strangers at home….

I did my own part in the global pivot. For several years, I oversaw Princeton’s internationalisation drive, creating global knowledge supply chains. It never occurred to me, or to others, to ask: what would happen to those less sexy, diminutive, scales of civic engagement? We didn’t worry much. They were the remits of provincialism, quietly escorted from the stage upon which we were supposed to be educating the new homo globus.

“What is Global History Now?,” Aeon, March 2, 2017

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.

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 “about” 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. 

“Not a Military Historian”

At a recent lecture on the Great War, Roger Chickering said, “I’m not a military historian.”1 The phrase stuck in my mind because he said it two more times during the course of the lecture and discussion. I’m sure he was trying to avoid letting the discussion get sidetracked by narrower debates about military operations, which was fair enough in the context of his talk about a series of common structural elements in Germany’s, France’s, and Great Britain’s wars. Nonetheless, his words bothered me.

Of course, there was nothing surprising about the statement. And Chickering really can’t be called a “military historian” in the narrow sense of the term. Nor can I, his former student. But if stating that one is “not a military historian” makes sense in terms of the prejudices of too many academic historians, it also cedes the ground of professional competence to those historians who only focus on the battlefield.

As legitimate as narrower operational and tactical studies of warfare are, their authors cannot be allowed to enjoy a monopoly on the interpretation of the more military-technical aspects of warfare, which are usually the purview of officers and the historians who focus on their decisions and actions. The broad expertise and perspective of the historian who studies war’s manifestations away from the violence is also needed for the battlefield and everywhere else that people were killing or being killed for ostensibly political aims.


  1. Roger Chickering, “Imperial Germany’s Peculiar War, 1914–1918,” Georgetown University, October 23, 2014.