Digitized Resources for World War I Research

At Portal Militärgeschichte, Markus Pöhlmann reports that a joint German-Russian digitization project has made available a substantial number of World War One–era German military documents at the Russian defense ministry’s central archive. There is also a digitized collection of the German secret services from 1912 to 1945.

Additionally, the multi-volume Der Weltkrieg 1914-1918 (The World War), published by the Reichsarchiv in excruciating detail, is now available digitally thanks to the Upper Austrian State Library in Linz. As Pöhlmann points out, this work continues to be essential for operational history because it was written on the basis of documents that were largely destroyed in World War Two.

Finally, the Austrian-Hungarian counterpart has been digitized in Linz too: Österreich-Ungarns letzter Krieg 1914-1918 (Austria-Hungary’s Last War).

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 Do we blame that war on elites wedded to outdated notions about war?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.

Consumption History Again

This blog post originally appeared on Clio and Me (now closed) on on this date.

Yesterday I asked how I could integrate the consumption history I’m learning into my teaching, and I pointed to a couple examples where it’s already there. But I missed a glaringly obvious one: the Great War.

Consumption is a vital part of the story in Gerald Feldman’s classic Army, Industry, and Labor in Germany, 1914—1918 (1966), insofar as the purchasing power of labor was inextricably linked to Germany’s social and political stability and, therefore, the country’s ability to produce sufficient armaments to continue fighting. The point is more accessible in Roger Chickering, Imperial Germany and the Great War, 1914—1918 (1998 and 2004), which I have used in a course on the Great War and will use again next fall in one on modern Germany. There is also Belinda Davis, Home Fires Burning: Food, Politics, and Everyday Life in World War I Berlin (2000), which I will be using in a graduate course on war and society this summer.

I also usually bring up a much earlier aspect of consumption history when I address the Enlightenment and the public sphere: coffee houses. To make this point, there is a delightful reading from before the Enlightenment on the Internet Modern History Sourcebook: “The First English Coffee-Houses, c. 1670—1675.”

Of course, none of this is informed by a specific historiography of consumption history, but it does point out how this topic is already in my teaching. But there’s a difference between including a topic and addressing it systematically. To think about war and society in Europe, I can at least draw on the periodizing nomenclature of cabinet war, people’s war, and total war to help describe the level of societal involvement in interstate conflicts over the past few centuries (Stig Förster et al.). If such language and periodization exists for understanding consumption history, I have not yet learned it.

Perhaps the main point is to recognize modern consumer societies as having a history in the first place, instead of taking them as a direct reflection of human nature and, hence, rendering them ahistorical, as too often happens in simplistic political rhetoric that opposes capitalism and communism—rhetoric that invariably finds its way into student spoken and written comments. I sometimes try to do this with economic thought in the early modern period, but historicizing capitalism should be a central historiographical problem for the modern era, too.

Stereoptic Views of the Great War

WWICuirassierBerlin

WorldWarIGermanDead

(click images to enlarge)

These stereoptic cards offer a tale of war reduced to two basic elements: soldiers on parade at home followed by the unburied corpses of soldiers on the battlefield. How should we read this story? At first glance, it seems to be about the gap between dreams and reality in war: the transformation of men from objects of admiration in society to a meal for rats, bugs, worms, and microbes in a foreign wasteland. In other words, the pictures seem to tell a story about the utter senselessness of the First World War. But does that interpretation do justice to the lives of these men? Does it tell us why they wore the uniform and sacrificed their lives? Does it tell us about their experience of war? And what about the politicians and generals who sent millions to their deaths? Can we write them off as insane or incompetent fools? Or should we take them seriously and try to fathom their mental universe? Finally, what lasting effects did this violence and loss have on the societies that fought this war? These are some of the questions that inform my interest in military history.


Source of Images: Wikimedia Commons. World War I: Cuirassiers in Berlin (top) and World War I: German Dead.


This blog post originally appeared on my old history blog, Clio and Me, on this date.