Posts Tagged With: world war 1

Absolute Destruction

Hull

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.

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Imperial Germany & the Great War

Chickering

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.

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Home Fires Burning

Davis Book

 

Davis, Belinda J.  Home Fires Burning: Food, Politics, and Everyday Life in World War I Berlin.  Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

 

Beyond being simply interesting and well-written, Davis’ work has far reaching impacts for understanding this period of German history. Beyond raising questions of legitimacy and the definition of politics, Davis’ narrative of the collapse of the German Empire is much different than Chickering’s account of a controlled abdication of the throne from the top.  The fact that women of lesser means, who had no political power, but great symbolic power (136), were able to protest about food distribution, and that the imperial government actually responded to those demands rather than subduing the open protests, represents a profound shift in our understanding of Germany during the First World War.

Davis’ book focuses on the food shortage in Berlin caused by the British blockade of the city during the war.  Because “women customarily controlled the major part of the purchase, preparation, and consumption of food in a German household at this time,” a food shortage suddenly thrust women into the political sphere (33).  While initial government propaganda efforts tried to convince the German population that this food shortage was good for them (by “hardening them up”), working and lower-middle class women quickly dismissed this as the government trying to sidestep its responsibility.  In response, women took to the streets in open protest, demanding that the government do something to help them.

The shortage of bread and potatoes during the winter of 1914/1915 “transformed shopping into a task riddled with anxiety and rancor,” and as a result, the “woman of lesser means” emerged as a new social protagonist.  These women came to “represent the front-line soldier in the inner economic war fought in the streets” of Germany (48).  These women led protests against the government, calling it indifferent at best, and incompetent at worst.  Even the Berlin police commissioner recognized that the “state must act to throw its lot with poor consumers or it would be seen as against them” (75).

Davis also shows how the government responded to these protests: government agencies, such as a national butter distribution authority, were created, and regulations were placed on the economy.  By responding to these women of lesser means, Davis asserts that “imperial officials both acknowledged and legitimated the notion that street protestors should set the agenda for official action” (112). However, by 1918 – even after the creation of the War Food Office in 1916 and a “food dictatorship” under the OHL later that year – the women of lesser means deemed that the government had failed them.  A series of food-hoarding scandals in 1917 dashed notions of the government’s “good intentions,” and poor Berliners concluded that they should no longer place faith in the regime (191).

Davis sees this period as the death of the Staatsnation, in which the nation existed to serve the state, and the birth of the Volksnation, in which the people were the seat of the nation (135).  This is important because when the home front decided that its government was un-reformable and had failed them, it cultivated an atmosphere that helps explain the revolution of 1918.  Davis’ book ultimately shows that women at the home front played a vital role in World War I (and knew that they played an important role) by causing drastic changes in the way the government was perceived, and the way the government perceived itself.  In doing so, she makes us question what constitutes politics (these women had no political power, yet ultimately wielded great symbolic power).

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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