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 these 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.

Who Should Groener’s Schlieffen Plan Matter To?

As I try to write an article about Groener’s understanding of war, which led him to write about Schlieffen’s supposed “recipe for victory,”, I have to keep asking myself, so what? I don’t mean this is in a negative way. I haven’t tired of this topic. But I’m not always sure why it should matter to other people.

If I look at the Schlieffen Plan debate carried out mainly in the pages of War in History, it is clear that Groener’s perspective has something to offer that audience, because the man who initiated the debate, Zuber, accuses him of having “invented” the Schlieffen Plan. That is reason enough to bring up the issue, at least for those interested in the military planning that helped cause and shape what George F. Kennan once called “the great seminal catastrophe” of the twentieth century.

When I shift my perspective to understanding the German military’s role in the outbreak of World War One, I find the more nuanced perspective of German military thinking worthwhile for its own sake, but the basic story line of an inflexible plan that offered no diplomatic wiggle room and helped to ensure that Germany played the role of aggressor remains the same. So why should anyone but a specialist in military history care? Why should it matter to a general historian of modern German or European history?

The answer to this question seems to relate to our image of German history and World War I more generally. Do we blame that war on elites wedded to outdated notions about war? Do we turn them into alien “Others” who are impossible to understand in anything but stereotyped terms along the lines that we see for Britain in the wonderful comedy series, Black Adder Goes Forth (but not as well-meaning, if callous fools, but instead with nefarious intentions)?

Or do we open our eyes to a less comfortable thought? What if World War I was not an aberration, but rather part and parcel of European (and Western) modernity? And what if the officers who developed and later justified Germany’s war plans were not defenders of a premodern monarchical system nor simply protecting their own reputations after Germany’s defeat, but instead were modern military professionals whose attitudes and efforts might have relevance for our understanding of modern militaries far beyond 1914?

The latter point of view could make the question of Groener’s Schlieffen Plan relevant for modern militaries and, therefore, interesting for a readership like the Journal of Strategic Studies has. But does this story only have something to tell scholars of military history and strategic studies? What about historians of Imperial Germany? I think an answer could relate to the modernity of the officer corps, the Great General Staff, and the war itself. It might also help us to understand a story whose chronological boundaries transcend political regimes, insofar as this one reaches from Wilhelmine Germany until close to the end of the Weimar Republic, if not further.

As I think along these lines, however, I see a journal article grow into something too big for the format. I would like to keep thinking about why Groener’s Schlieffen Plan might matter to general historians of Germany, but maybe I first need to concentrate on a narrower, more specialized audience. I have to write a lot more before I can know.

Refuting Straw Men and Explaining What Happened

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.

I also used Terence Zuber’s interpretation of Schlieffen’s doctrine and war planning as a foil against which to compare what Groener knew about war before 1914, as well as what he experienced in the opening acts of World War I. In this case, I was somewhat more successful in saying what actually happened and why, but far too much of the analysis and narrative was aimed at Zuber. That was still necessary in 2006, when I completed the thing, but now I am not so sure. At any rate, it can’t be the only point of an article about war planning and conceptions of war in the Great General Staff.

Although it is relatively easy to demolish straw men, I can’t stop there. I also need to offer more viable explanations in their place. I have a fair idea of how to do that in the case of Imperial German war-planning, but I’m less certain about the indirect relationship between class and professionalism that led me to challenge stereotypes of the Wilhelmine officer corps in the first place.


1 Cornelius Borck et al., “Forum: The ‘German Question’ in the History of Science and the ‘Science Question’ in German History,” German History 29, no. 4 (December 2011): 631.

Catch-Up Reading and Article Idea

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.

The Schlieffen Plan debate has been dragging on for over a decade, so maybe I shouldn’t feel too bad that I have only now read Gerhard Gross’s excellent intervention (available in both German and English), in which he explains the whereabouts and wherefores of Schlieffen sources better than anyone I have seen (at least for those deeply emersed immersed in the problem), not to mention addresses Zuber on his own chosen operational turf—albeit with politics as well as incredibly thorough archival work and careful, nuanced analysis. Now I need to make time to explore the differences between his Schlieffen and the one I see Zuber’s other historiographical opponents offering, especially regarding the question of “preventive war” in 1905. But that will have to wait. Right now, I’m more interested in Schlieffen’s image of war, what he imparted to the General Staff, and how. And I’m interested in matching Groener’s timeline against this, because what I’m really trying to get at is the evolution of Wilhelm Groener’s Schlieffen Plan, that is, how he understood and wrote about Schlieffen over the years.

By the way, how does “Wilhelm Groener’s Schlieffen Plan” sound for an article title? That’s what I’ve decided I’ll write first.

Dissertation on Internet Archive

Uploading one’s dissertation to the Internet Archive is certainly not for everybody, because publishers will not want to publish something that one can get elsewhere for free. Nonetheless, I took this big step after initially just making it available on GoogleDocs and Dropbox, where I had the freedom to delete the file. After careful consideration, I have concluded that any articles or book I write will be substantially new pieces of scholarship, not just recycled, even when I draw heavily on my empirical findings and analysis.

(I have also uploaded my MA thesis. Two articles I wrote lean heavily on it, but they also integrate a substantial body of new scholarship and reach deeper conclusions, as they should have after the passing of so much time.)

So why not make my research available to the public? I have some unusual freedom in this regard, because I am not looking for a tenure-track teaching job, which means I do not have to fulfill those kinds of requirements. Instead I can continue to engage in scholarship next to my editing and part-time teaching. And I can submit that scholarship to the scrutiny of peer review, which I intend to do, but without worrying about finding time and resources to research and write a monograph.

Want to see my theses? Visit my Writings page, which will get you there. But keep in mind that there is a difference between a thesis and a book. A thesis is written for one’s professors, and a book for a broader audience.