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. 

Terence Zuber’s Image of War and the Schlieffen Plan Debate

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 ensuing debate. [See pp. 24–52.] 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, at least not yet. 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 on Dropbox, because some of the most important scholarship is locked behind 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, or at least informed by marked hubris 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 Der Schlieffenplan: Analysen und Dokumente, ed. Hans Ehlert, Michael Epkenhans und Gerhard P. Gross (Paderborn, Ferdinand Schöningh, 2006), 45–78]. 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. [See Ehlert et al., eds., pp. 45–46.]

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. [See the War College’s description of what kinds of leaders it trains: “Master of the Strategic Art”.] 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 further 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 continue to talk past each other.