A short article I wrote with Kerstin von der Krone about History of Knowledge, the first blog in the German Historical Institute Washington’s scholarly publishing program, is now open access. See “Blogging Histories of Knowledge in Washington, DC,” in “Digital History,” ed. Simone Lässig, special issue, Geschichte und Gesellschaft 47, no. 1 (2021): 163–74.
When writing my dissertation, I was forced to confront Terence Zuber’s claims that Wilhelm Groener and others had “invented” the Schlieffen Plan, and I wrote a section on the issue. The debate has continued since that time, with new evidence and articles emerging, but I have not seen any significant reason to alter my basic conclusions. Thus, I feel the section I wrote still has value for anyone trying to understand this debate. I mention that here and make the dissertation freely available because some of the most important scholarship is locked behind the pay walls of professional history journals. That is fine for those of us with access to well-stocked university libraries, but not everyone is so fortunate. Zuber himself has been canny about this limitation of modern scholarship, which so often engages other scholars but does not reach out to the general public. He has rehearsed his arguments in an affordable book for the mass market called The Real German War Plan (The History Press, 2011). While this will not earn him points in academia, it serves the useful function of engaging the public, which more of us should do.
Zuber’s ideas are important because he insists on taking Schlieffen’s military thought seriously at a very practical level, instead of accepting that the German ideas of war we commonly hear about were almost insane, informed by marked hubris, or naive and foolish. Zuber looks at the military documents themselves and submits them to a reality test. How could this have worked? Why did Schlieffen write something with so many internal contradictions? Unfortunately, Zuber overreaches the power of his sources and gets things wrong. He also seems to conflate doctrine with strategy. Drawing on his own undoubtedly superb training and extensive experience as a U.S. infantry officer who reached major, he sees things from the perspective of a staff officer or possibly a commander on the battlefield. That is useful, but he forgets what such an officer cannot see, unless he has risen to the very highest levels.
I was reminded of this weakness today in a combative piece he published in German called “Der Mythos vom Schlieffenplan” . In the very last paragraph, he writes, “Krieg und Kriegsvorbereitung sind eine durch und durch nüchterne, praktische Angelegenheit. Es geht um Doktrin, Ausbildung, Truppenstärke, Beurteilung der Feindlage, zur Verfügung stehende Zeit sowie Gelände und Wetter.” I hesitate to translate an American’s thoughts back into English with quotation marks around them, but his basic point is that war is a fairly straightforward thing. Its core elements are doctrine, training, troop strength, assessment of the hostile forces as well as basic factors like time, terrain, and weather. That sounds like a perfect description of war conceived at the purely operational level, which is the only, albeit important level he examines. But what about strategy? What about politics and economics?
It might seem uncollegial to bring up Zuber’s military background, since he is also a trained historian, but he has made a lot of his military profession, which he uses in ad hominem attacks on his history colleagues. In the same piece I just quoted, for example, he dismisses Annika Mombauer’s important findings on Helmut von Moltke the Younger with the remark that she does not understand the terminology and has no military background, whereas he served twenty years in the army.
There’s a reason why U.S. officers (and other officials) attend the War College before they enter the highest ranks of service. They need to expand their vision to the strategic level, which will include politics, economics, and more. Zuber’s own military background cannot have provided him with these insights, although his historical training should have. Indeed, I expect he has plenty of knowledge about such issues, but he refuses to engage the problem of German war planning at that level, instead insisting on the sole relevance of the factors quoted above.
That is unfortunate. To make any real progress in the Schlieffen Plan debate, we need to expand the scope of the discussion to include images of war, ours and those of our historical subjects. Without a firm grasp of such matters, we will talk past each other.
Postscript, February 12, 2012
A useful article on the Schlieffen Plan debate that I managed to miss when I was finishing my dissertation is Annika Mombauer, “Of War Plans and War Guilt: The Debate Surrounding the Schlieffen Plan,” Journal of Strategic Studies 28, no. 5 (2005): 857–85. She, too, points out Zuber’s apparent disdain for those without significant military experience.
Regarding the notion of making progess in the dabate, a great deal has been made, of course, and Annika Mombauer might be right to consider Zuber’s challenge over and done with as far as serious scholarship is concerned. (See her article in the Journal of Strategic Studies cited in my previous comment.) But we haven’t got to the point where a general consensus has been reached. And I suspect the great number of publications by Zuber will continue to sow confusion for a long time to come, as he insists on the primary value of his limited source base and his narrow conception of war. After all, academic historians do not have a monopoly on the interpretation and telling of history in the public sphere.
Kevin Levin of Civil War Memory has posted good material to his academic blog under the category, myth of black Confederates. Several recent posts include criticism of efforts by modern-day Confederate patriots and would-be historians who want to appropriate Weary Clyburn, a slave, as a defender of Southern liberty. In one he points out that writing good books to debunk myths is all well and good, but on the subject of black Confederates “the real fight must take place on the web.”
In the same post he points to an earlier one he made in late March: “Should Civil War Historians Blog (academic that is)?” In it he observes how vast the public discourse about the American Civil War is, while the discourse in which professional historians participate is relatively narrow. Historians need to continue their current research and publishing mission, but they also have “a responsibility to engage a wider audience and contribute to the public discourse.” Since much of the public turns to the internet for ready answers, historians need to offer these answers in an accessible format, especially for highly sensitive questions that shape American identity.
I agree with Kevin about the need for Civil War historians to blog. I have also observed a similar need with respect to Holocaust denial, since I have found that Google can get it wrong. Until now I have used this blog mainly to reflect on what I do and to communicate with other historians, but as Kevin points out, Google brings him search engine traffic for important topics such as black Confederates, so his blog posts reach a wider audience. I have written a few of my posts with that awareness, but his arguments make me think I could do much more. So could other historians.
This piece originally appeared on this day on my old history blog, Clio and Me. The links have been updated.
This following piece appeared on this day on the blog of the now defunct Blog Catalog.. At the time the site was a hybrid blog portal–social networking site with an active community. I pulled it from the Wayback Machine and preserved those links so that they can still work.
Too often I come across an interesting piece of information on a blog that does not contain links to the author’s sources. That’s too bad. All I can do at that point is shrug my shoulders and wonder if the story is true. Then I’ll probably close that browser tab and go somewhere else, because I won’t risk experiencing similar frustration with a second story on the same blog. Of course, if the story is really important to me, I can do further research on Google, which is fair enough. At the same time, though, what reason have you given me to go back to your blog? None. Offer me a good, well sourced post, though, and I will be back.
Links to your sources are important for at least four reasons:
- Verifiability. Links to your sources allow me to verify whether or not your story is true. For this to work, though, they should point to hard news sources, not just another blog. Bobbie Sullivan does this on Aircrew Buzz and her other aviation blogs.
- Acknowledgment. Sources permit you to acknowledge where you got your ideas and information from in the first place. These can include not only hard news sources, but also any blog or other source that sparked you to think about the topic. If the information is not generally known, though, include additional sources to satisfy the verifiability requirement. I sometimes handle acknowledgments with a hat tip. You can see one Gavin Robinson gave me in the first paragraph of the 14th Military History Carnival.
- Examples. Sources can help provide you with the kinds of examples you need to support your arguments. Since the internet is a hypertext environment, sources can also help you to pack more information into a post without providing loads of background details. I used links in this manner in the second paragraph of a post about generational differences between Barack Obama and Jeremiah Wright. I’m also linking examples in this post about sources.
- Context. Sources help locate your ideas within their broader context. By providing links to that context, you help your reader to understand how your ideas relate to other opinions and discussions on the internet, and on your own blog. In the process you provide additional value to your reader, giving her one more reason to return. One blogger who often provides good context through linked sources is Rich Becker of Copywrite. Ink.
Of course, not all blog posts need sources. If you are writing about your own life, you are the acknowledged expert on it. Enough said. And no one who has heard Tony Hogan’s music is going to ask him to provide sources for the advice he offers on learning the guitar. It helps, though, that he has a good about page on his blog, which tells us a bit more about him. And what about me? Why do I think I can offer this advice without providing sources on the art of sourcing? My field is history, and getting students to understand the value of sources is one of my everyday teaching concerns. Yes, I could be making this up, but you can find out more about me at Clio and Me.
My wife is reading a crime story I got for Christmas and read over the holidays, Christian von Ditfurth, Mann ohne Makel. It’s sleuth, Josef Maria Stachelmann, is a historian of the Third Reich. Wonderful read, if you know German. Anyway, my wife asked me about the Hossbach Protocol that Stachelmann is supposed to give a talk about. My memory failed me, so I took the easy way out with Google. Bad idea.
The first two hits on Google led to web sites that seek to appear legitimate, but which are in fact sites that deny the Holocaust and consider the Nuremberg Trial a travesty of justice. How did Google mess this up? Have some Nazi would-be academics learned search engine optimization (SEO)? Or was this blind luck? I’m not sure how Google’s search engine works, but the results here certainly point to the limitations of algorithms that rely on the syntactic relevance of a site. Also, while no one is linking to the articles about the Hossbach Protocol directly, there are many links to the main sites on which the articles appear. (You can determine who is linking to a site by typing link:www.name-of-site.com into the Google search box, unless the site is using the nofollow attribute in its links.) In other words, the sites appear to be popular and therefore relevant in Google’s eyes. In fact, Google has blessed both sites with respectable, if not overwhelming page ranks (PR). The first one Historical Revisionism, comes in at a PR 4, and the second one, Institute for Historical Review, at PR 5 on a scale of 0 to 10.
Now I could stop with this warning about the limitations of Google search results, but perhaps there is more to be learned here. Perhaps I should also issue a plea to historians to both learn SEO and write for general audiences on the web. Like it or not, Google is the first place many people turn for answers, and anyone seeking one on the Hossbach Protocol can be easily led astray. Actually, historians might not even need to learn SEO. Wikipedia already has a high page rank and its pages turn up regularly at or near the top of Google search results. Perhaps all that is needed is more and better Wikipedia articles. The Hossbach Protocol doesn’t show up in Wikipedia. If it had, the search results would have been different.
Wikipedia brings up another twist. Typically, when one uses one term in Wikipedia that is more commonly known by another, Wikipedia will at least offer alternative results. (It’s better than Google that way. Google can only offer spelling alternatives.) In this case, though, the more typical American name for this document did not show up in the search results. Only after I typed Hossbach Memorandum did I find what I was looking for. I then typed this term into Google and came up with much more satisfactory results. Only one of the right-wing links came up on the first page, and this time near the bottom.
This final result brings me back to Wikipedia and SEO. We need to enter all possible variations of terms in Wikipedia articles so that they show up in search results. (Sure, I should have entered “Hossbach Memorandum” right from the start, but I translated directly and that was that. As the first set of search results shows, others have done so too.) We also need to do the same thing with web articles and blog posts. It won’t do to leave the field open to the bad guys, simply because the world of SEO isn’t part of our training and does not make or break historical careers. I don’t know if Deborah Lipstadt does any SEO, but her three-year-old blog combats holocaust denial and has a PR 6. More established historians need to follow her example in their respective fields.
First published on this date on the now closed Clio and Me.