Iron and Blood

From The Economist:

According to a remark attributed to Voltaire, in the late 18th century Prussia was an army with a state rather than a state with an army. Its standing force of 200,000 men was vast for its relatively small population. A century or so later, the belief that Prussia and subsequently imperial Germany were uniquely militarised European powers was reinforced by Otto von Bismarck’s famous address to the Prussian Diet in 1862. “Not through speeches and majority decisions will the great questions of the day be decided,” he declared, “but by iron and blood.”

Peter Wilson, a military historian at Oxford, does not dispute how integral militarism has been to Germany’s past. But by providing centuries of context, he sets out to show that its history could have been different, and sometimes was.

Because of a focus on the two world wars, with perhaps a glance back to the Franco-Prussian war of 1871, a myth has evolved of a specifically German way of war, the author argues. In this telling, Germany’s position in the heart of Europe, encircled by hostile neighbours, meant it needed a first-strike capability that could only be achieved by a “power state”, an authoritarian system able to mobilise the necessary resources. This in turn has led to a further myth: of a unique German genius for war based on superior technology, skill and martial spirit. Even today, Hitler’s Wehrmacht is admired by many military types, especially in America. For Blitzkrieg, read “shock and awe”.

Much of the book is taken up with conflicts within or involving that strange entity, the Holy Roman Empire, the collection of mostly German-speaking states dominated by Habsburg Austria that, as Voltaire also quipped, was neither holy, Roman, nor an empire. At least until the middle of the 18th century, this alone made the German way of war quite different from those of unitary states such as England or France. The quasi-autonomy of the component parts, which nearly all maintained their own armies, required a decentralised and collaborative approach—the antithesis of the authoritarian model that emerged later with such awful consequences.

Despite the horrors of the Thirty Years War (1618-48), which was largely fought within the empire’s borders, and the fearsome reputation of its pike and musket formations, it was not much more prone to violence than other parts of Europe, and enjoyed long periods of relative peace. Even after the empire’s collapse following defeat to Napoleon at Jena in 1806, and its metamorphosis into the German Confederation in 1815, peace held until the revolutionary uprisings of 1848 and the war with Denmark that began in the same year. But in 1864 a second war with the Danes forged the template for future conflicts.

The chief of the general staff, Helmuth von Moltke, was charged by Bismarck with achieving a quick, decisive victory before other powers could intervene. He did so, but more by luck than good judgment. The army had triumphed, in its view, because of its freedom from political supervision, an inference that led Prussia’s rulers to place their faith ever more blindly in the top brass. That faith appeared to be vindicated when Prussia routed France in 1871, thanks to efficient mobilisation, brutally effective tactics and French mistakes. But, as Mr Wilson observes, these and other successes embedded “flaws ever deeper into the country’s institutions, only to be repeated with ever more disastrous results in the subsequent two world wars”.

Doomed to repetition

Before 1914, the unquestioned assumption of the general staff (under the leadership of Moltke the Younger, nephew of the original) was that, since a major war in Europe was inevitable, it should prepare for one. The possibility that politics or diplomacy might be more productive was barely considered. Thus the constant reworking of the notorious Schlieffen plan, which required the encirclement of French forces by racing to the coast via Belgium.

This was, says Mr Wilson, an “opening gambit rather than a strategic plan”. Everything rested on a successful first strike, with little thought for the consequences if it failed—as it did. Not only was Germany unprepared for a war of attrition against foes with advantages such as greater resources and the Royal Navy’s blockade power; it did not even start with clear and achievable aims.

Link to the rest at The Economist

5 thoughts on “Iron and Blood”

  1. No kindle version yet available on Amazon. I don’t know how many people like to read history especially military/political history, but it seems like when it’s a university press who publishes the book the chance of it being a kindle version goes down dramatically! In fact, it appears besides some small niche publishers across the pond that American universities are the only ones who don’t seem to release kindle versions based on my biased unscientific shopping habits on amazon.

  2. Eh, I’ll reserve judgement. It’s still in pre-order, not out until this coming February.

    University presses are worse than even tradpub, but I have seen some Harvard publications show up as Kindle.

    I’ll probably not get it, though – as I’ll have long forgotten about it in two or three years. It would be nice if Amazon would provide a “flag when published in Kindle” to notify those of us who aren’t willing to add yet another dust maker to our shelves.

  3. Two comments on the above comments:

    1. There is a Kindle version in both the USA ($37.95) and the UK (£14.99) – both prices higher than I would normally pay for an e-book,

    2. The UK Kindle version is published on 6 October 2022 (so four days time),

    but my 1st comment is based on checking from a UK ISP. When I use a VPN and pretend to be in the USA I am only shown the hardback (so goodness only knows what’s going on – though both sites when accessed from the UK ISP show the Kindle versions as published by Penguin on 6 October and the hardbacks by Harvard next February).

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