Preparing to Fight the Last War? Maybe Not

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.


Image: Prussian War Academy ca, 1900 via Wikimedia Commons.

A Few Notes on the History of Knowledge

One of the new research focuses at the GHI since our director, Simone Lässig, began her tenure last October is the history of knowledge.1 The study of knowledge in its societal context (as opposed to thought experiments about truth in the discipline of philosophy) has some tradition in sociology and anthropology, but it is still a relatively new focus in English-language historiography, at least in my experience here in the U.S.2

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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. Continue reading

Terence Zuber, Military History, and Culture

I recently noticed that the English translation 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 already available in English. 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.

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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. Continue reading

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).

‘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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading