In a blog post earlier this month, “From Cultural History to the History of Knowledge”, Johan Östling and David Larsson Heidenblad examine the attraction and potential utility of the history of knowledge as an historiographical approach. Particularly helpful is their attempt to tease out its relationship to cultural history.
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.
I don’t have the expertise to critique Muth’s interpretation of officer education in this period, and I’m convinced he knows what he is talking about. But my guard goes up when I read works that are not only critical, but also assume an air of being smarter than their human subjects. It seems to me that we historians need to be more modest than that. Still, this is a question of personal style, and Muth is by no means alone in following such an approach, especially in military history, which straddles a line between historiographical traditions, sometimes trying to understand the past on its own terms (as I was trained to do in a program and profession in which, unfortunately, “military history” can even be a dirty word), but also trying to judge what worked and didn’t work, a worthy question that interests Muth and many other military historians, to say nothing of policy makers, military professionals, and the lay public.2
Let me provide an example from the Imperial German period. In his conclusion Muth writes,
The German Great General Staff saw a steady steep decline in performance after its founder and mentor, Moltke the Elder, retired. His successors tried in vain to emulate the habits and outward appearance of the great old man but failed miserably in their basic tasks—to provide leadership, strategic planning skills and sound advice for the head of state—until the whole organization collapsed in the apocalyptic defeat of a two-front war, which every sane staff officer would have thought to prevent with all its might (181-82).
I interpret the General Staff’s professionalism and competence differently,3 but Muth’s take is certainly consistent with a great deal of historiography. Indeed, his comment points to the need for me to participate in this debate with more scholarship of my own. The part that bothers me, though, is the last dependent clause in the above quote. Yes, the project that Germany’s leadership embarked on in 1914 seems insane from our own vantage point. It even seems insane based on our interpretation of what was known back then. But denying the rationality of German war planning and the professionalism of its planners amounts to a refusal to take them seriously and enter their thought world in order to truly understand what it was they thought they were doing in 1914.
But this is not the focus of the book. Instead, the Imperial period offers but a foil against which Muth measures German military professionalism in the interwar period, and he uses the latter as a foil for criticizing U.S. military education at the time. Furthermore, Muth is not so much interested in war planning, grand strategy, and so on, as he is in how officers led—or didn’t lead—on the battlefield. This is a crucial question, and his observations on the differences between American and German approaches to military leadership at the beginning of World War II offer plenty of food for thought, which I hope specialists of this period will soon discuss.
One last note: Muth provides the place of education and year of graduation with the first mention of each U.S. officer he names, for example, “General George Smith Patton, USMA 1909” (29). He offers this highly suggestive information to provide readers with a sense of the personal networks that officers developed in their formative years. This makes me wish for further, even prosopographical studies of the U.S. officer corps that employ such data, just as we need more of it in the German case, if with other reference points, such as the first regiment of a German officer, although I have also noticed some tantalizing overlap in the years that Wilhelm Groener and other officers attended the War Academy in Wilhelmine Germany.
1 Jörg Muth, Command Culture: Officer Education in the U.S. Army and the German Armed Forces, 1901–1940, and the Consequences for World War II (Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press, 2011).
2For a useful discussion of the tensions inherent in writing military history because of the multiple constituencies it serves, see Stephen Morillo with Michael Pavokovic, What is Military History? (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2006).
3Mark R. Stoneman, “Bürgerliche und adlige Krieger: Zum Verhältnis zwischen sozialer Herkunft und Berufskultur im wilhelminischen Offizierkorps,” in Adel und Bürgertum in Deutschland II: Entwicklungslinien und Wendepunkte im 20. Jahrhundert, ed. Heinz Reif (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2001), 25–63; Stoneman, “Wilhelm Groener, Officering, and the Schlieffen Plan” (PhD diss., Georgetown University, 2006).