Hull, Isabell V. Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005.
In a provocative book, Hull studies the ways that military extremism developed in Imperial Germany and was unleashed on people (soldiers and civilians alike) in Southwest Africa and later in Europe. Her work focuses on “institutional” extremism as separate from any type of ideological extremism like racism. As such, she claims that “it has been possible to destroy whole peoples without ideological motives” (2).
Central to Hull’s argument about the violent extremism of German military culture is her understanding of “culture” itself, which Part II of her book is dedicating to explaining. “The power of culture is derived from the fact that it operates as a set of assumptions that are unconscious and taken for granted” (95). Part of these assumptions was the definition of victory, which the German military (and, indeed, any military) defined as total and complete victory in any situation through military force. Hull is careful to reiterate that a military’s expertise is the skilled use of violence, and that naturally violence would be the means to the end of a military victory. Such a conviction that violence is the best means to an end “reduces the panoply of possible military options, which is actually quite broad” (100). This limitation of possibilities, paired with the desire for total victory led to extreme forms of violence.
She shows that Southwest Africa at the beginning of the twentieth century was the area where the German military could practice for later European wars (3). This is a drastically different stance than other scholars that hold that excessive violence was ideologically “acceptable” in the colonies because of the subjects’ inferior status. But Hull argues that in the colonies is where German military leaders learned to do away with the barrier between combatants and non-combatants, a method of “military necessity” that carried over into Europe during World War One. Purposefully using provocative word choice, Hull argues that the insistence on total military victory at all costs led to a number of “final solutions,” including the almost complete annihilation of the Herero in South West Africa, the disregard of international protection of civilians during WWI, and even tacit approval of the Armenian genocide in Turkey.
This military extremism evolved into such an orgy of violence that, by 1918, the German military proposed an Endkampf, in which Germany would hold out long enough and destroy what they had until the moment their opponent would deem the war was not worth fighting and give up (thus leaving Germany with a “victory”). Hull argues that this Endkampf failed because Germany simply didn’t have the resources (even though the military had taken control of the economy, further blurring the line between soldier and civilian) or troop morale to support such a self-destructive campaign. This “inflated and exclusivist definition of victory” was the main legacy of the Wilhelmine military culture on the National Socialist regime (333).
Hull’s argument seems like it would apply to all militaries in the Western world. Indeed, she says that “the late nineteenth century Western world thus placed military might at the heart of state self-definition” (326). But only in Germany was the army established (by the constitution) outside of civilian oversight. Therefore, it had no one to rein it in as it began to develop excessively violent solutions to problems. Ultimately, she concludes that “The Imperial German case shows that militaries, because violence is their business, do not need external ideologies or motivations to encourage excess.”
For more books on modern German history, see my list of book reviews HERE.