If military service had become a rite of passage for young men in much of Europe well before the mutual slaughter began in the summer of 1914, neither its ubiquity nor its meaning to those it embraced were foregone conclusions. To be sure, the fundamental challenge offered by the declaration of the levée en masse in revolutionary France in 1793 represented an important first step, as did monarchical Prussia’s turn in 1813 to the near-general conscription of those men considered young and fit enough to join the fight. Indeed, Prussia’s response to the Napoleonic challenge intertwined military service, citizenship, and manhood in the gendered construction of a nation at war that bore a striking resemblance to those ideals manifest in the mobilizations of 1914. Nonetheless, near-universal manhood conscription took many more decades to predominate on the continent, (never mind the United Kingdom, which did not resort to it until 1916).
Although this blog would seem to indicate otherwise, I am still alive. Here’s what I’ve been up to besides my usual not-blogging:
Someone else will be doing the GHI’s archive seminar next year. Part of me wishes I was still doing it, because I enjoy working with the students, and I was looking forward to rethinking part of the program. At the same time, I need all the time I can get at the GHI for editing at the moment.
I’m finishing up the editing for a translated monograph by Annelie Ramsbrock called The Science of Beauty: Culture and Cosmetics in Modern Germany, 1750-1930. It has been a challenge in terms of making the translation more accurate and readable, while at the same time working to keep my inner control freak in check.
I have been revisiting my Groener project, but most of my reading is on gender and war in the middle decades of the nineteenth century in Europe as part of a handbook project. I’m enjoying this work, and I’m managing to do it because I’m not teaching this semester—probably not next semester either.
In a recent German History forum, Paul Lerner offers an interesting aside: “I used the medical Sonderweg as more or less a straw man in my 2003 book on German psychiatry, but I found that even as I refuted it, the need to explain the unique path of German medicine kept arising.”1 These words speak to me, because I used Groener’s biography to refute the rather untenable interpretation of a “feudalized” bourgeoisie in the Kaiserreich, even in the officer corps, but taking down that straw man hasn’t offered a satisfying answer about the meaning of Groener’s middle-class cultural orientations for our understanding of the Imperial German officer corps. Read more
I’ve been working through more journals, putting interesting articles and reviews in my bibliography database and reading the things. It might be faster just to search databases for what I’m interested in, which I also have to do, of course, but browsing many issues of a journal offers a helpful overview of what’s going on in the scholarship more broadly. I still have to pick and choose from the huge mass of offerings, but at least this way I see things that I likely never would have looked for otherwise.
I’m doing most of my data entry and sorting on my iMac with Bookends from Sonny Software, and I’m reading and reviewing on my iPad though the new Bookends on Tap, which syncs with the Mac nicely. And I’ve got the Mac database on Dropbox, in case I need to add or reference something from the office.
One valuable benefit of otherwise rather poorly paid adjunct teaching is the access I get to periodical literature online through the university library that is not available through my institute. But I’m finding that I’ll still need to visit Lauinger Library at Georgetown for some things, too. Fortunately, that’s only a thirty-minute walk from here, half of that through the woods, which can do this sedentary body good.
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. Read more
I am continuing to reread and ponder the dissertation. After getting over its many weaknesses, I see there is lots of good stuff in it, even if it is clearly in no way close to a book (following William Germano). There’s also no easy way to extract articles from it. These will have to be conceived and written from scratch, although the dissertation contains plenty of useful building blocks for essays on Groener and the Schlieffen Plan debate, military culture and the General Staff, images of officering and professionalism, and so on. First, however, I have to consider the extent to which I should make general arguments based on Groener versus offer work that focuses more narrowly on him, albeit to foster further work for broader conclusions.
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.
An essay on the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71) that I wrote last year appeared in print this fall in a book about war atrocities from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century.1 The essay focuses on German soldiers and French civilians using the example of the Bavarians. It examines why soldiers sometimes departed from generally accepted standards in Europe about sparing civilians the effects of war as much as possible.
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?
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, imbibed 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.