Imperial Germany & the Great War


Chickering, Roger.  Imperial Germany and the Great War, 1914-1918.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 

Chickering’s book is a study of Imperial Germany’s (the Kaiserreich’s) actions during the First World War.  He does not spend much time considering Germany’s role in the outbreak of the war, but instead focuses on what he considers to be crucial miscalculations on the part of Germany’s leaders in carrying out the nation’s war effort.  Upon finishing the book, one gets the impression not of imperial leaders diabolically starting a war for national gain, but instead one in which Germany’s leaders were stuck in a bygone age, unwilling to understand their new, modern world, and thus causing more devastation than was necessary.

Chickering asserts that Germany’s leaders realized the potential for overseas colonies and warfare to forge a sense of national unity at home; in other words, domestic affairs could be solved through foreign affairs.  That is why, as potential war built up in 1914, the German Empire’s leaders felt ready to undertake the effort.  Chickering then describes the “spirit of 1914” that was present in Germany, a “spontaneous and overpowering sense of national unity, a unanimity of view about the origins and meaning of the conflict that was beginning” (14).  Furthermore, many felt that the coming war would decide once and for all between the shallow, materialistic Gesellschaft in favor of the communal, patriotic and ideal Gemeinschaft.

While the “spirit of 1914” may have bolstered a sense of unity, it only set the Germans up for disillusionment, Chickering argues, because it did not take into account the new technologies that would make this war something completely different than anything before it.  For Chickering, the prime symbol of German leaders’ inability to adjust to the modern world is the Schlieffen Plan and its failure because of its basis on outdated notions of warfare that did not take technological innovations seriously enough.  After 1914 proved not to bring a quick military victory, it became apparent to the leaders that the war was to be won or lost “elsewhere than on the field of battle” (31).  In other words, because warfare itself had changed, resources and sustainability would be the deciding factors.  This gave the home front unprecedented importance (and thus power), so when social unrest broke out by the second half of the war, the main form of protest was the industrial strike.  Moreover, as manual labor became increasingly important to the war effort, the boundaries between blue and white collared workers became blurred. As the war raged on and took its toll on the home front, the costs of war were not equally shared.  While the war sometimes exacerbated old social divisions, new ones were also created.  Chickering, then, sees the many Vereine as the fragmentation of German society, an attempt for Germans to confront the war’s meaning by grouping together with others based on some broader interpretive framework like economic class (133).

Throughout the book, Chickering closely traces the tension between the military and civilian leadership of the government.  By 1916, the army had become the dominant political force in Germany, and Hindenburg and Ludendorff mobilized total war based both on flawed understandings of economics and idealized notions of conditions on the ground, thus undermining their own goals.  Resources were poorly allocated and their attempts to micromanage the economy failed.  When it became apparent in 1918 that the military could not win the war, “the burden of making the fundamental decisions shifted… from the soldiers to statesmen and political leaders” (187). Handing the reigns over to civilians at the moment of defeat laid the groundwork for the “stab in the back” theory that would dominate a majority of Germans’ understanding the war’s end until 1945.

For more books on modern German history, see my list of book reviews HERE.

Categories: Book Review, German History, History | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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