Friday, July 24, 2015

The Myth of German Militarism


Last week this site attempted to bring some insight into the so-called ‘German question’ by exposing some of the national motivations that underlie the reasoning behind European reservations over German political power. Some of those groups I specifically cited as being behind the proposition of a ‘German question’ have refuted my assertion that the gist of their contention is motivated primarily by strategic misconceptions and historical bias against the German nation. Many of the naysayers have argued that the article failed to disprove the notions of German militarism as the root cause of Europe’s concerns over Germany’s strategic dominance on the continent, while others have suggested that Berlin cannot be trusted to wield its power in a humane and constructive manner. They cite the preponderance of German militarism as a deeply-rooted and cultural aberration in the fabric of German society as the underlying cause of Europe’s fears and that Nazism was indeed the culmination of that historical trend and certainly not the exception, as I so provocatively stated. Perhaps it is time for history’s sake, and in the interests of a new 21st Century cultural renaissance to purge those biased and erroneous, historical notions from western civilization once and for all. 

What is German militarism?

Most of what today’s modern world understands about German militarism stems from WWII and the abhorrent and aggressive policies of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Third Reich. In citing Nazism as the graphic exemplar of German militarism, posterity has been bequeathed with an omnipotent paradigm that vividly illustrates the bellicosity of the German state in all its fanatical authoritarianism, racist fury and oppressive military brutality. But Nazism in and by itself cannot be used as a pretext to indict the whole German people for inherent aggressiveness any more than republicanism, being  the root cause of the USA’s oppression of their Indian minorities, could be cited as a deeply American trait. Nazism was ostensibly a political movement that caught on with a minority of the German population and its political mavens took advantage of the acute statutory vulnerabilities ingrained in the democratic Weimar constitution, which at the time had immersed the country in incessant political gridlock. Hitler and his party cohorts took full advantage of the budding mistrust the German people were beginning to have about the validity of the constitutional democratic system, and this allowed the Nazis’ to sway just enough of the swing voters to claim the national election. It is perhaps even likely that many of the party’s original adherents would never have cast their ballots for Hitler in the first place had they known he was planning on ridding the constitution and initiating a one-party dictatorship. 

But when the victorious Western Allies strove to reinvent the postwar German nation into a more placid and egalitarian society they did not point to the evils of Nazism alone as their motivating purpose behind the intended transformation, but rather cited the acute militarism of German society over the last seven decades as the one undeniable trait that had to be extinguished for good if the victorious allies had any chance of preserving the peace in Europe. So are Germans not peace-loving people or perhaps are they just victims of a national tendency to favor strict, authoritarian governments that espouse the trappings of national greatness and foreign conquest as their highest political prerogatives? If Germany’s leading role in the peace and prosperity of the European continent over the last sixty-five years is any indication than you’d have to answer both those questions with an unequivocal ‘no’, since the German people and their numerous governments have acquitted themselves more than honorably in the postwar world. This conclusion inevitably leads one to ask; was the German nation really as militant in the pre-World War era as the victorious allies of WWII allege, or perhaps was their overly dramatic debasement of German society just an adverse reaction to the excesses of Nazism?  

Germany’s militarist past can be plausibly ascertained to the epoch of the Teutonic Knights in the 13th and 14th centuries, when a small group of Christian German zealots endeavored to sustain the era of the Crusades through their military subversion of the pagan Slavic tribes along the Baltic periphery. But by no means was crusading attributed as a uniquely German trait. There were many other European crusading fraternities that were quick to take up the mantra of military conquest in the name of religion, and none of them gave cause for the repute of the overall militancy of their respective ethnicities. If any nationality could claim title to that admission it would probably be the French or Italians, who historically claimed to be the soldierly vanguard of Christian virtuosity. Many years later German soldiers were to play a decisive role as mercenaries in the great monarchic wars and feudal conflicts of the 16th and 17th centuries but in that era most European soldiers were guns-for-hire anyways, and the German contingents only stuck out because their fragmented homelands served as breeding grounds for the monarchic armies of British, French, Spanish and Austrian kings. So there is really little to prescribe to the notion of the German people with having an affinity for violence and aggression in the pre-modern era as most European soldiers resorted to arms, not out of love for war and battle but more out of necessity to combat the hopelessness of feudal society. 
Frederick the Great

It is not until the disastrous defeat of the storied Prussian Army at the hands of Napoleon in the 1806 battles of Jena and Auerstadt that we begin to see a noticeable upsurge in martial ethos among the soldiery elite in German society. But even this was isolated to a small compliment of the Prussian noble caste—the Junkers—who were traditionally elevated as the fearsome standard bearers of the Hohenzollern throne. The Prussian Army had earned a formidable reputation as Europe’s most compact, effective and well-led army under the tutelage of Frederick the Great. It’s rigidly-trained and expertly-led formations brought an almost robotic efficiency to military maneuver on the 18th Century battlefield, so by the time Frederick disavowed himself from further military pursuits his army had become the envy of all Europe. Sadly in the four decades that followed Frederick’s retirement from the battlefield his army gradually fell into a state of docility and disrepair. Its dilapidated state was revealed in stunning detail with the ease in which Napoleon rapidly surrounded and then destroyed its most formidable components. From this point on the higher mavens of the Prussian General Staff were committed to an institutional overhaul of the army’s strategic training and in the organizational way it approached war and conflict. It was Prussia, out of all the German states which was most affected by Napoleon’s ravaging crusade across the German heartland, thus it fell to Berlin to extract from that ignominious defeat the lessons it needed to learn which would ensconce Prussian military strength as the perennial backbone of German defense.

The Hohenzollern monarchy was a throne stoked in the celebrated military traditions of its storied ancestry, most of whom took an active interest in pursuing the military excellence of its Junker-based, officer corps. Because of this the Junker caste always played a considerable role in the implementation of the king’s policies, at least in commercial and military matters. However for much of the realm’s existence these established military traditions were reserved exclusively for the Junkers, and Prussia’s rather destitute population served a menial role in the fomenting of military policy except in times of war. The Hohenzollerns and their Junker stewards might have been a brazenly militaristic fraternity but the Prussian populace was a largely peasant society and like its compatriots in the other German realms, largely segregated from the ritual functions of monarchical government. Most of the other German states had their own unique, military and governmental institutions but it was only the Prussians who ascribed to a tradition of military excellence good enough to be exported abroad. As a result the Prussian Army’s more distinguished military thinkers and their often astute military theories and concepts were regularly disseminated and adopted by the other standing military formations in Europe and beyond.
Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke

The high priest of Prussian military thinking was Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke, who held the illustrious position of Chief of the Prussian General Staff for a period of thirty years. Moltke took up the torch in conceptual strategic planning from the distinguished Prussian military theorists Carl von Clausewitz and Gerhard von Scharnhorst in the mid-Nineteenth Century, and went on to formulate Prussian military philosophy for the rest of the century. Between 1864 and 1871 Moltke orchestrated the three celebrated military triumphs against Denmark, Austria and France which would eventually culminate in the unification of the German state under the empire of the Prussian king. After the unification of Germany the esteemed Prussian General Staff institution changed its name to the Great General Staff to distinguish it from its fellow German counterparts’. At first Moltke was averse to sharing his most significant conceptual precedents with the other German general staffs, but over the next forty years the field marshal and his successor Gen. Alfred von Schlieffen gradually implemented an effective system of command which adroitly integrated the more beneficial aspects of the other German staffs and promptly discarded their less practical doctrines. But they couldn’t break all the particularities of their counterpart’s more enduring royalist traditions, and so the Prussians were forced to make compromises and one of these concessions was the Junkers’ monopoly on the army’s officer corps. By the start of the First World War the Great General Staff placed an army of more than two million soldiers on the battlefield and though its officer corps was still dominated by the Prussian aristocracy, many German commoners were steadily moving through the ranks and gradually amalgamating their distinct provincial conventions into a unified German Army.
Gen. Gerhard von Scharnhorst

Between the unification of Germany in 1871 and the start of WWI some 43 years later, the Prussian monarchy in Berlin conducted its foreign affairs no differently than the other three European powers in London, Paris and St. Petersburg. All four of them were actively engaged in their own implicit struggle for strategic advantage on the continent, and all of them regularly sought out the lesser European states to offer and receive their assistance; in which to hasten their own security and to maximize their influence within the strategic struggle. By the standards of the newly established federalist system of the German monarchy, the government in Berlin was mildly autocratic by nature but the tyrannical regime in St. Petersburg was twice as worse; yet that didn’t stop Paris from actively seeking its company in a military alliance against Germany and its distant German cousins in Vienna. That development negates the premise that the fundamental odds between monarchism and democracy were the root cause of the system of national military alliances that hastened the start of the First World War. Europe’s system of alliances was strictly strategic in purpose and principle, hence had little to do with the type of political system advocated by one’s enemy. France had a grudge against Germany because of its loss of the provinces in Alsace and Lorraine and sought out Moscow’s assistance in denying Berlin the strategic ascendency. It was an intricate part of the balance of power struggle in Europe and everyone was looking to secure a strategic advantage over their opponent. 
Otto von Bismarck

German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck was the master politician called upon to navigate the monarchy’s quest for equilibrium in the balance of power struggle. This shrewd and sometimes arrogant Junker statesman possibly did more to enhance the myth of German militarism than any other politician or soldier in Nineteenth Century Germany. Aside from his affinity to don garish military uniforms to emphasize his loyalty to country and crown, Bismarck was often derided by his leery diplomatic adversaries, not so much because he stood as the face of German political bellicosity, but more perhaps because he seldom was tricked into yielding a strategic advantage on the negotiating table. It was Bismarck who coined the term realpolitik and history knows him as possibly its most brilliant practitioner. But by no means could Bismarck be affirmed as a German militarist. His one meaningful contribution as chancellor to his nation’s military service was his intentionally protracted negotiations with the German legislature to implement a system of military conscription deemed acceptable to both the army high command and the provincial chiefs in parliament. He might’ve done more to prevent a continental war than any other politician in Europe and only fell out of favor with the Kaiser when his increasingly didactic approach to power politics was no longer considered appropriate for the deteriorating situation in Europe. 
Adm. Alfred von Tirpitz

Paris especially and in due time both London and St. Petersburg, all impetuously drew the same conclusion that German political obstructionism, and not so much its military capabilities, was the biggest impediment to the continental peace and prosperity of Europe. But they disguised their suspicions of German animosity to their own citizens with wildly extravagant claims of 'military-plots-in- the-making by the Kaiser’s increasingly rambunctious, Junker warlords; even though it was primarily French irredentism that nurtured the call to confrontation. Germany was increasingly compelled to react to French bellicosity by strengthening its commitments to defend those nations most in danger of being swallowed up by the hostile, French-Russian alliance. The rapidly splintering Hapsburg domains in Austria and the Balkans were the most susceptible to French and Russian envelopment, thus Vienna increasingly looked to Berlin to assist in neutralizing the effects of the hostile encroachment. For their part, London had no desire to side with Russia since the czar’s increasingly hostile infringement on the Ottoman domains was clearly detrimental to Britain’s Mediterranean interests. They were also freshly resurfaced from their own near-confrontation with France over the North African colonies and would remain relatively neutral in the dispute until after the turn of the century. The tipping point for London came when Germany’s newly appointed naval chief of staff, Alfred von Tirpitz embarked on a crack naval buildup, meant to propel Germany to the heights of maritime power alongside the vaunted British Navy.

The British instantly became the most vocal in denouncing Germany’s naval buildup as the outrageous provocations of a German government fueled by the emblematic sway of acute Prussian militarism. I guess the real question that begs to be asked was exactly how long London expected its mastery of the sea to go unchallenged, especially with the alarm bells ringing regularly of imminent confrontation in Europe. Britain fell out of favor with Berlin only when its naval supremacy was openly challenged by Germany’s growing industrial might, and because its inadequate army was no match for the formidable power of the German Empire’s military ground force, London chose to align itself with the two military powers that possibly could compete with Germany’s conventional strength. Today Britain only admits to taking sides at the onset of the First World War when German forces violated the neutrality of Belgium on their way to confront the French Army, but their belated allegiance to the Entente coalition was already a foregone conclusion after the naval dispute surfaced. None of this reflected the preponderance of Prussian militarism in German society; only that Germany’s military chiefs were overtly harnessing the instruments of state industry to better prepare their military for the potential challenges ahead. 
Hindenburg, the Kaiser & Ludendorff; WWI high command

The greatest mistake Berlin made during the run-up to WWI was its abysmal neglect of Germany’s consumer economic market. Western historians have often chalked this up to the Prussian military’s enigmatic influence in the corridors of German industry but there is little to corroborate the assumption of an orchestrated commandeering of state industrial output by the military high command, other than the aforementioned mandates to German shipyards. Certainly this wasn’t the case after the war dragged on far longer than expected and the military high command took on a far greater role in the running of the economy, primarily at the public’s expense. But this merely shows that Germany’s military mavens were not adept at mastering the acute economic entanglements of the truly war-driven economy. Their often brilliant tactical minds were reduced to political parvenu when their strategic insight strayed into the realm of economic crisis management. And the increasingly lackadaisical monarchy was only too willing to absolve itself of its domestic responsibilities by handing them over to the one institution in German society that consistently showed its loyalty to the crown. Consequently, after the collective despair of the civilian population materialized into open dissent, so too did the fortunes of Germany’s military machine begin to wane under the stress of prolonged overuse. 
The Schlieffen Plan (West Front version)

Germany’s performance in WWI far exceeded the expectations of their enemy but wasn’t quite good enough to deliver the knock-out blow envisaged by Moltke and Schlieffen. There were however a fair share of glorious moments when the strategic ascendency of the German military machine seemed a nearly invincible and awesome juggernaut. The German Army came within 12 miles of pulling off one of the greatest military victories in world history and it is highly probable they would have consummated that victory had the current general staff stuck with the original Schlieffen Plan presented eight years before. In any event, the German generals were unable to crack the enigma of prolonged trench warfare and were compelled to sustain a lengthy battle of attrition that the German economy was ill-prepared for. This exposed the illustrious Great General Staff as a mere mortal institution and though it was still exalted by its traditional Junker stewards, it lost its luster in the eyes of the German commoner, who was forced to endure the costly sacrifices on the homefront that the generals were increasingly demanding. In the ensuing political chaos that accompanied the weakening monarchy the Junkers tried desperately to hold onto their privileges by propping up the monarchy every chance they could, but in the end they merely attracted the wrath of public furor and in a sense, inadvertently bolstered the resentment in German society that gave root to the denunciation of the ruling Prussians as the source of immutable militarism. 

Much of Germany’s flourishing militaristic reputation can be charted to the time when the German public lost confidence in the general’s ability to restore the worsening situation on the warfront. That’s when the frantic pronouncements of political opposition figures denouncing the obstructionism of Prussia’s warlords began to filter out of Germany and winded their way into the enemy capitals in London, Paris and Washington D.C.“The war would be over by now if it wasn’t for these blasted Prussian generals, who continue to fight while the rest of the nation has had enough of the bloody affair”. That became the standard refrain from many on the streets of Berlin, Frankfurt and Munich when the public’s cries for a political settlement of the war went unheeded by the government. That type of protest could hardly be construed as the banter of a deeply militaristic society. At the start of the war the German public, like most of the other civilians in the warring countries of Europe, enthusiastically marched to the drum of their war-leading sovereigns. But four years later the war-weary public had tired of the effects of the war’s longevity and took their frustrations out on the political figures that reigned over the chaos, which by that time had been fully entrusted to the army high command. The resulting backlash effectively condemned the Prussian militarists in the eyes of the German public and sanctified their standing in the western world as the embodiment of unchecked, military aggression for eternity. 
Gen. Alfred von Schlieffen

Germany’s military mavens never objected to the monarchy’s march to continental conflict. In a sense they may have furtively encouraged it by confidently disclosing to the king exactly how they planned on winning it. But they never purposely caused the war and like their counterparts in the war rooms in London, Paris and St. Petersburg, the German generals were simply advancing the theories and concepts that their intense military training had stipulated and prepared them for over the preceding four decades. That’s what generals do. They implement political policy by military means and unless war is averted they move to put in place the necessary resources needed to prevent disaster, or at least the termination of that policy. All four of the wartime monarchies, Germany, Russia, Austro-Hungary and the Turkish Ottomans went to war with a political system hardly equipped to face the challenges of prolonged conflict, especially from a populace historically excluded from participating in the development of public policy. All four of them ultimately met with disaster when their sovereigns were overthrown; not because of enemy intervention in their homelands but through political revolution brought about from the liabilities of the monarchic system. That particular system was effortlessly equipped to fight wars in the age of limited, positional warcraft but it was ill-suited to wage total war on a scale which required immense public participation. Consequently they all paid the price for their reckless exclusivity. 
Kaiser Wilhelm II

So why exactly were the Germans singled out for being the most militant of the four belligerent monarchies? After all, wasn’t the German Kaiser only fulfilling his obligations under the Triple Alliance Pact to come to the aid of Austro-Hungary in the event of a war with Russia? It should come as no surprise that the most virulent anti-German rhetoric emanated from the capitals of Western Europe, whose French and British populace took the brunt of the Entente’s impetuous rush to war and were saddled with the lion’s share of public destruction caused by the fluctuating combat on the Western Front. Once again France led the charge in the west’s obstinate crusade to vilify the Germans for the senseless destruction caused by the war. The implacable government in Paris moved swiftly to extract punishing vengeance on the Germans by straying far beyond their simple entitlement to have the lost provinces of Alsace-Lorraine returned to France. It made no difference that France had declared war on Germany first because Paris wasted little time in indicting the Germans for their ‘unprovoked’ attack into Northern France and vindictively saddled the new German government in Weimar with a damage bill for losses inflicted in areas of Europe the German Army never set foot in. It was thus hardly unexpected that French and British grandstanding at the Versailles settlement would ignorantly cause the United States to turn their backs on Europe for the next two decades because of the unbridgeable differences in the European capitals. 

Both Paris and London were unashamedly crass in blaming the dreaded Prussian militarists for their countries near disastrous showing on the battlefield and contemptuously vilified the institutions of the German Army as the breeding ground of that nation’s militarism. In their opinion the German high command, and specifically its Great General Staff institute, must be expunged forever from the balance of power ensemble if the west had any hopes of reining in future German might. Now, you could look at this argument politically and judge London and Paris vindicated for merely applying their privilege to set precedents by virtue of their victory on the battlefield, or you could view the dispute in a strategic perspective by challenging the wisdom of London and Paris to make excessive demands on an enemy that they were unprepared to satisfy; not to mention that they both showed little inclination to remain united in resolving their long-term interests. You could even insinuate that their dispute with the German generals was basically borne out of fear that they would have to face them again, and that their boisterous harangues about German militarism were specifically meant to alarm the rest of the world, in order to coopt them into taking their side in the balance of power struggle.                                                         

Enter the Nazis: The New and True Kings of German Militarism

The vanquished German nation basically stumbled into its postwar democracy and left its tormented masses discernibly ignorant of the expectations inherent in a democratic state. Democracy was a wholly new concept for most Germans and although they enthusiastically partook in practicing their newfound rights at the ballot box, they had scant knowledge of the inner workings of constitutional government to patiently persist through the political intricacies of multi-party, parliamentary rule. Those problems persisted right up until the republic’s bitter end during the elections of 1933. For their part the British and French never made it a priority to assist in the establishment of democratic institutions in the Weimar Republic, although their expertise might have been cleverly invaluable to the grand strategies of both western nations in the creation of amicable relations with their longtime nemesis. But London and Paris chose to concern themselves solely with the extraction of German compensation, in a concerted effort to suppress the German economy and when their long-term labors proved unsustainable they went back to the time-tested policy of underscoring the threat of German militancy as the perpetual bane of the continent's well-being. Only no one else was interested in listening to London or Paris anymore, and even when the militantly racist Nazi regime took power in Berlin, the rest of Europe and far beyond had had enough of the European balance of power game.

The militarization of German society began in earnest as a direct response to the political upheaval created from the acute struggle between the extremist right and left factions of the political spectrum. Communist agitators from Moscow were originally quite effective in sowing their political concepts in those segments of German society which had sacrificed the most from the military’s mismanagement of the war economy. But as more and more soldiers began returning from the front, many who had never suffered defeat on the battlefield, they began to even the odds between right and left by hoisting a virtual armada of firebrand rightist agitators to the forefront of German political debate. Many of these returning soldiers felt an acute sense of betrayal for having been denied the fruits of their arduous labors by a distinctly revolutionary segment of German society that cared little for the communal welfare of the army’s rank and file. This led to an extreme polarization of German society, which certain vestiges of the German Army officer corps covertly conspired to manipulate and use to combat the communists’ rising power. At first the army was only interested in adding its weight to the political debate to stave off the power of the communist’s, which they looked upon as a distinctly foreign and fundamentally radical interloper to the development of Germany’s post-monarchy government. But after time the army was compelled to disengage from the partisan political battles and unassumingly drifted underground to shield their activities from the prying eyes of the Versailles peace monitors. 
Freikorps units armed for battle with reds

But the fact remains that there was never any wholesale militarization of German society until well after Hitler came to power. The only comparable example of an orchestrated plot to militarize Germany in the years between the armistice of 1918 and the rise of the Nazis came with the deployment of the infamous Freikorps units, but these essentially decentralized militias were primarily returning-formations from the war’s Eastern Front and were still under nominal control of the army high command. They acceded to their relatively liberated state because there were no Entente allies on the Eastern Front to procure their demobilization. The German front in the west might have collapsed in October but at the signing of the armistice on November 11, 1918 those German units in the east were still very much in the ascendency, since they had virtually chased the Russians from the battlefield. They took a semi-active role in the political infighting in Germany ostensibly because they had witnessed firsthand the destructive tendencies of the communist revolution and were committed to halt its spread before it reached the Oder. Many of these tightly knit regiments were only too eager to join in the fight to suppress the red revolution and even when their formations were officially demobilized by the army high command, a hefty spattering of their rank and file troops remained at the will of their often revered commanders. Thus it was solely up to the leaders of the Freikorps units themselves whether their troops would take an active or inactive role in the purge of communist agitation.
Gen. Hans von Seeckt

Eventually the army high command absolved itself from the Freikorps units and left the more rambunctious leaders to their own devices. What was left of the German Army was compelled to take up the compulsory task of reinventing itself under the banner of an Entente-imposed, 100,000-man defense force. The Reichswehr, which Germany’s streamlined military machine was reincarnated as, was expertly managed by Gen. Hans von Seeckt, who secretly kept all the army’s esteemed conventions and traditions together so that the army could be brought back to formidability whenever political circumstances permitted. But even this particularly flagrant violation of the postwar peace settlement cannot be properly portrayed as a brazen example of German militarism. The German Army still had an obligation to defend the country and just because Paris or London deemed its imposed restrictions sufficient to defend its own borders, the German state was still vulnerable to the hostile tendencies of some of its newest neighbors, carved from the partition of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Seeckt might have mastered the art of collective camouflage but he was still very much a realist and he understood better than most the acute vulnerabilities of the army’s current state, especially if the French considered his charades provocative enough to intervene militarily. Thus he was forced to partner with the Soviets to move all aspects of the Reichswehr’s offensive training to the far off reaches of Russia and kept its domestic components rigidly sequestered from the public’s interference. 
Pres. Paul von Hindenburg

By the waning days of the Weimar Republic the only Germans visibly seen in uniform were cops and Nazis. The Nazi horde began as a miniscule minority primarily in urban Bavaria but by the 1930’s it could lay claim to having close to one million members and possibly double that amount in informal supporters. Yet the Nazis never polled more than 37% of the popular vote in any national election and still represented only a small segment of German society. The militarism that Hitler and his cohorts brought to the stage never completely commenced until German President Paul von Hindenburg died in office in 1934 and Hitler swiftly moved to implement his dictatorship. The rest of course is history. Germany’s short-lived trial in popular militancy roughly mirrored the twelve year duration of Hitler’s reign. There was never a collective effort to militarize German society in any era following its unification except for the Nazi epoch and perhaps throughout the period of communist rule in East Germany. The Junkers—that feudal distillation of Prussia’s glorious military past—had for all intents and purposes, surrendered their privileges in the interwar years and were sufficiently culled from German society when the Soviets overran their majestic estates in East Prussia, Pomerania and Silesia in 1945. Today’s Bundeswehr, Germany’s latest military incarnation, is safely integrated into NATO’s strategic command and poses virtually no threat to its neighbors or anyone else outside of NATO’s crosshairs. Its rather doubtful you could even find a popularly organized group of German radicals outside the fringes of German society bold enough to advocate the raising of one’s fist in violence anymore. Hence it is perhaps time to extinguish the myth of German militarism once and for all and along with it can go all the insolent rumblings of a ‘German question’ or German unilateralism and Nazi rebirths. 

German militarism can be palpably ascribed to the era of the Nazis alone. At no other time since the age of Napoleon were the German people manifestly exhibited to take part in any state-sponsored aggression toward its neighbors or to its minorities. Other than its discreditable performance under the Nazis, the German Army has performed quite admirably in all three of its other major military encounters with continental powers. In roughly the same timeframe the British and French Empires have gone to war no less than a dozen separate times and none of them were conducted in response to their homeland being imminently threatened. So who should I ask carries the mantra of being more militant?  Even at the peak of its membership levels the Nazi Party never represented more than 13% of the German population, so this hardly gives cause to indict the rest of the 60 million Germans for complicity in Hitler’s rise. Germany’s Wehrmacht, that great Nazi-era consortium of full-blooded Aryan manhood and soldierly virtue was never a distinctly Nazi appendage. Certainly the soldiers were fighting for Hitler and his cause but most of them were too young to vote in an election anyways, and by the time they had surpassed the voting age most of them had been killed in action. The Nazis were quick to take up the mantra of devout German nationalism but by the end of the war Nazi recruiters were inclined to do most of their recruiting abroad, where thousands of Latvians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Dutch, Norwegians, Croats and Belgians were eagerly signing into Nazism’s beguiling inducements. 
Hitler & Mussolini, the faces of fascism

Nazism was more of a racially-motivated, social movement than it was a devoutly nationalistic political party. The leading party apparatchiks used nationalism to procure its electoral success but there is little to glean of its passionate appeal to German statehood after the party came to power. In fact, after the party came to power it was more inclined to subordinate the virtues of national pride and awareness to the party-manufactured concepts of ‘Aryan purity’ and ‘Nordic supremacy’. Hitler was quite adept at using the carrot and stick approach to yield concessions from all his quarries. He used nationalism to appeal to German sensitivities at the ballot box and then corrupted its literal and figurative merits with slogans that exalted the Germans racial and hereditary qualities. Hence German nationalism became Germanic pride and purity when the Nazis’ no longer needed the former’s alluring assets to attain power. The militancy of the movement came not with its appeal to the German state but more out of an acclimation for a mythical German race. And it was eminently more favorable to the Nazis to elicit violence from the masses if they could contend that the whole hereditary bloodline of every German soul on the planet was under siege from the party’s enemies abroad. Thus it is quite dubious to assert that the philosophy of Nazism itself is a distinctly German trait because its most pertinent creeds have often been applied by some of the most sinister, racist organizations in every other country of the world. The only difference is that the Nazis aspired to assume political power.  

The era of the Nazis provides a unique introspection of German militarism in its worst and perhaps only discernible manifestation. It is thus merely an anomaly in the long, proud history of the German people. This author cannot condone the insidious way the Nazis’ came to power in 1933 but just as importantly, no one has the right to condemn the whole German nation for allowing the toxic seed of Nazism to flourish and grow. If anyone is determined to solve the enigma of Nazism’s most unwelcome emergence in Europe than perhaps they should look no further than the abominable provisions in the Treaty of Versailles, which effectively condemned three generations of German people to a life in purgatory for a crime they never committed. Versailles didn’t necessarily cause the Second World War but it lay the foundation of mistrust in Europe that portended the likelihood that the truce that ended the First World War was merely a temporary cease-fire. It was also one of the underlying factors that brought out the emergence of Adolf Hitler to Germany’s political scene. The Treaty of Versailles didn’t create Nazism but it did lend credence to many of the party’s more alluring perspectives. It also does justice to the claim that Nazism was a viral anomaly that surfaced at the right time and place where circumstances permitted all its malevolent impulses, racial overtones and innate expressions to take root and grow.  

Truly the only real militaristic trait the Germans have is that they are clearly the first Europeans to take the time to actually study and master the science of military strategy, in all its cognitive inferences and intellectual capacity. Their military mavens endeavored to perfect the art of warfare not out of quest for military supremacy but more in pursuit of military excellence. Their astute military tuition is regularly cited by other military theorists for their splendid judgments and timeless advances in the evolution of military thought. More significantly, German military concepts and tactical innovations, still to this day are frequently adopted by many of the standing military formations on the planet. Tactically and perhaps operationally the German military has proved itself second to none and has provided numerous, vivid examples of its mastery on the battlefield for the next generation soldier to analyze and dissect. But this mastery has come with a cost. The reputation of the German nation has taken a tremendous hit for their army’s timeless pursuit of military excellence and its people have paid a horrendous price for their government’s misuse of those capabilities. Only through time will Germany be able to overcome the undeserved stigma of having mastered the concepts of humanity’s darkest creations. Or perhaps the Germans will simply move on to become masters of a more reverent and benevolent science, unaffected by its tarnished, previous pursuits.                          

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The German Question Revisited: Genuine or Myth?


After witnessing nearly six months’ worth of vigorous, back and forth negotiations between Athens and the Eurozone ministers during Greece’s debt crisis it is easy to conjure up a tinge of admiration for the political innovators that adhere to the concept of European unification. With all the diverse interests of such a variable stew of state and ethnic rivalries coming together for the benefit of one collective policy, it truly amazes the outsider how distinctly humane and egalitarian Europe has chosen to become after more than a millennium of incessant conflict and violent political turmoil. Today’s political mavens of a unified, European state structure might never completely enjoy the fruits of their vigorous labors but just the fact that they endeavored in the first place to bring some semblance of organized political structure to this perpetually conflicted land makes them well deserved of the amity and respect of the whole western world. Not since the days when Germany’s numerous sovereign princes got together in Frankfurt to relinquish their stately positions for the betterment of a unified German nation has Europe been distinctly united enough to realize the unique political possibilities of collective strength in numbers. And although things are far from being rosy in Europe’s financial capitals, Athens' belated approval of the Eurozone’s most polemical fiscal demands gives hope that Europe’s most difficult economic entanglements might still be mastered after all.  

One of the more resounding themes that the western world kept hearing about during the frantic, months-long negotiations between Greece and their Eurozone counterparts was a recurring reference to “the German question”. This centuries-old, geopolitical dilemma seemingly raises its ugly head whenever Europeans perceive a German government to be thwarting the collective will of the continent’s main power brokers. The wariness stems not so much from the specter of German political posturing or economic muscle-flexing, but lies more with the perception that the continental peace and prosperity of Europe is wholly unsustainable under the aura of an independent-minded Berlin. For the world at-large the ‘German question’ was first alluded to in 1945, primarily as the psychological aftershock in treating a vanquished nation they had come to identify as the main instigator of two world wars. But the real ‘German question’ reaches back in Europe to centuries before the two world wars were fought and very little of it had anything to do with outward German aggression. 

The ‘German question’ we hear of today is conveniently alluded to by its more zealous practitioners as the perennial sounding alarm to the international community to rein in German unilateralism before it manifests into bigger and more serious, political problems down the road. It has thus become the calling card of Europe’s most dogmatic and virulent Germanophobes and leftist agitators to evoke the memories of Germany’s belligerent past whenever its political strength proves disagreeable to the status quo. But are we really hearing the explicit warnings of an imminently threatened section of European society or is it just the biased invectives of a European public unwilling to accept German dominance at the center of the continent’s political power? To fully understand the ‘German question’ or at least the phenomenon of fear historically associated with this European behemoth, it is perhaps appropriate that we revisit European history long before the princely German states declared their unification in 1871. 

European political power in the modern age had historically been centered on Paris, London, Vienna and Moscow. Germany’s fractured political landscape derived from its historical affiliation with the Holy Roman Empire; a political entity closely monitored by the Hapsburg regime in Vienna but continuously subverted by London, Paris and Moscow. Europe’s balance of power mechanism among the four monarchical states assured their mutual existence and at the same time, relegated the independent German states to second-tier status by habitually destabilizing and undermining their sovereignty and thwarting German unification by exploiting the princely alliances against one another.  As a result the unification of the princely German states was severely retarded for centuries through the maligned intercession of the separatist phenomenon known as German “particularism”. The ecclesiastic differences between Paris and Vienna had the most profound effect in encouraging the particularism of the smaller German states and served to fuel the eminent distrust and animosity between the German and French.

So it was that the small German states would remain pawns to the political exigencies of the four monarchical giants in the European balance of power structure. And when Napoleon decided to run roughshod all across central Europe for two decades he more or less etched in stone the historical acrimony between German and Frenchmen for centuries to come. When the German states were finally unshackled from the constraints of Napoleonic suzerainty they gradually began to realize the benefits of a common political and economic confederacy; through the benevolent, commercial mechanisms of their own customs and monetary union, the Zollverein. But first and foremost the Zollverein brought about the ire of London, which was none too pleased to accept another formidable trade rival on the continent, especially one that had the potential to surpass the wealth of the whole British Empire within a matter of decades. In the ensuing political struggle Britain used its substantial economic influence to isolate the new German conglomerate and waged a nasty smear campaign against Prussia and Bavaria, the two more dominant states in the German confederation.

However Britain was unable to halt the dynamic trend that was slowly materializing in German politics and which would eventually lead to its unification. That fateful event was consummated after Prussia defeated France in the Franco-Prussian War. Yet contrary to the warnings from London and Paris which spoke of rampant German aggression materializing from its newborn statehood status, the German Empire lay dormant and peaceful for the next fifty years and swiftly put together an industrial infrastructure that was to become the envy of all Europe. But even in its relatively quiescent state Berlin could not absolve itself from the wrath of London and Paris, which now spoke of Germany’s unbridled autocracy as the biggest threat to the free world. And while the perpetually resentful French openly exalted their desire to win back the lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, and Great Britain forged ahead with its imperial pursuits in Asia and Africa, German Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck stood up to all who would conspire to thwart the emergence of German power on the continent.  

If this sounds like the fiery bluster of a confirmed Germanophile than I probably lost you somewhere near the Franco-Prussian War. But it was specifically that world-shattering event which would accentuate the acute political differences between Paris, London, Berlin and Moscow and lead inexorably to the First World War some four decades later. The German question at this time referred strictly to the new, geostrategic dilemma posed to the European balance of power with the emergence of an all-powerful and united, German state. The unified German state, far from being a new and potent military threat to the existing balance of power structure in Europe, was perceived as an uninvited and unwanted interloper to the geostrategic, power fraternity; thus within an instant of its glorious battlefield victory over France it had inadvertently set off an unofficial Cold War between Berlin and the other three power capitals of Europe. 

As a hodgepodge of separate and politically fragile, autonomous dukedoms, the German confederation was a tolerable and potentially beneficial intermediary to be utilized between the large powers and the rest of Europe. But melded together into one sovereign, political mass and the German state instantly became a force to be reckoned with, politically, economically and militarily. The only other comparable precedence German unification could be equated with as a challenge to the existing power structure of Europe was the sudden emergence of the USA from the imperious grasp of the British Empire. Yet the European powers were ostensibly shielded from America’s rise by its anemic political development and of course, the huge body of the Atlantic Ocean separating the two entities. Germany was a different case altogether. By virtue of its strategic standing in the center of Europe, with a historically cultured and highly educated source of immense, industrial and military manpower suddenly at the disposal of the Hohenzollern monarchy, the German Empire entered the European power structure not as a political equal to the British, French and Russians but more as a top-heavy, hungry giant that threatened to throw the whole political order out of whack. 

Thus the primary ‘German question’ was born in the early months of 1871 as France’s political representatives scrambled to end the war with Prussia before they could be swept aside by revolution. The only real question to be answered by Europe’s shocked and indignant political powers was how to fully contain this new and formidable player in the world of European realpolitik. At the heart of the German issue, as is so often the case in geopolitical considerations, were the acute political differences between four strategically diverse regimes with altogether paradoxical histories within the making. Germany was the new guy on the block; eager to consummate a new and promising history for its culturally oppressed and politically tormented masses. Britain was an economic and naval powerhouse determined to uphold the existing balance of power structure for no other reason that it afforded them an opportune way to advance their commercial interests on the continent. France on the other hand was entering an age of historical decline, made all the more conspicuous by its increasingly radicalized, domestic politics. Russia too was entering an age of uncertainty and political upheaval after breaking with its feudal past, and had increasingly isolated itself from the European power game.

The only ‘German question’ before the age of Napoleon that was regularly asked and answered by Europe’s main power brokers was how to manipulate the German princes to best exploit the insuperable tendencies of German particularism to their own advantage. Most of the time this was done at Hapsburg Austria’s expense since nearly everyone was keenly aware of the formidable challenges that a unified Holy Roman Empire under Vienna’s auspices presented to the balance of power in Europe. It was precisely this threat that engendered Napoleon to formally disband the Empire lest it become the ethnic rallying call for all the German masses to serve under a revitalized Hapsburg monarchy. So when the unified German state finally came of age some sixty years after Napoleon, Europe’s main power brokers suddenly changed the question to elicit a more affirmative reaction from the rest of Europe to heed the specter of a considerably strengthened  German entity within their midst. 

Much of what lies at the crux of the ‘German question’ today evolves from their generations-long pursuit of military excellence, not necessarily military supremacy. Since power is only relative to the way it is ultimately wielded, the institutions of the German military have been unjustly accused of pioneering Germany’s efforts for strategic domination, even though the German state has gone to war only once in pursuit of aggressive, military conquest. Thus the militancy of German society can only be plausibly isolated to the era of Hitler and the Nazis. Even through the progression of Germany and Prussia’s long monarchic past, the militarism of German society was exclusively reserved to a small and uniform, noble elite, which kept its soldierly traditions progressing through the decades-long intervals between continental military engagements.  But they endeavored to master the art of war principally because they had come to experience the embarrassment and humility, as well as the strategic implications of military defeat on a grand scale. Their military traditions are rooted in their Prussian past, yet as formidable of an opponent the Prussian Army was on the field of battle, it hardly fit the criteria of a military formation habitually prone to confrontation and aggression. Frederick the Great, perhaps Germany’s most distinguished military monarch, spent the first twenty years of his reign in a perpetual state of war with the rest of Europe before devoting the next forty years of his life to rule over an era of unprecedented economic growth, peace and prosperity across his placid realm.

It is only during the Nazi era where we can make a surefire correlation between German militancy and the quest for international political power, but most of the combativeness in German society hailed from Nazi propaganda and a distinctly party-controlled, artificial nationalism manufactured by Nazi philosophy. In adopting the persona of Adolf Hitler and his exalted leadership principles to be the standard bearer of collective German greatness, two generations of German people can plausibly be singled out in abetting in the greatest political blunder in modern history but this hardly leaves proof that the German people are naturally predisposed to war and aggression. German bellicosity was born and flourished during the reign of the Nazis’ but you could easily make the case that it would never have come to fruition if Hitler never came to power in the first place. Without a doubt this is the root cause of Europe’s ambivalence in accepting a revitalized German state, unshackled by the constraints of a shared European power structure with France and Great Britain. Hitler’s instigation of the most destructive war in human history obviously gives pause to those ready to cede a more dominant position to Germany in the running of a unified Europe, especially if Berlin feels strong enough to commit to a policy of unilateralism. For this we can most assuredly claim that the terror of Nazism represents the main logic behind the ‘German question’ as it is understood today. The remaining logic is gained from the perception that German aggression was the root cause of the First World War; an assertion that isn’t so easy to prove.                                                                                                    

Possibly the most misunderstood belief in the Western World which most rankles the German people is the perception that Imperial Germany initiated and provoked the First World War. Hundreds of thousands of books, encyclopedias, films and periodicals have been written on the subject and nearly all of them come replete with divergent causes and different antagonists and provocateurs. As an American, I can say that I am not happy with the way Imperial Germany prosecuted the war, especially in the sphere of naval operations, but I cannot say that I hold the regime in Berlin culpable for starting the war and I can say with reasonable certainty that most historians are equally averse in meting out blame on Germany alone. It is there in the First World War where we see the first violent manifestations of the Nineteenth Century balance of power rivalries take root in all their festering frustration. Imperial Germany, for all its seemingly bellicose demeanor and rigid monarchic excess, fought a gallant, prudent and tactically proficient war worthy of the better soldiers in military history. Its violent transit across the neutral territory of Belgium was its worst transgression but even this infraction can be rationalized to strategic necessity, not unlike the Western Allied intervention in Norway, Iran or Morocco in the Second World War. 

Consequently if we absolve Germany of the blame for the First World War then their belligerence in WWII becomes something more of an anomaly, thus quite unworthy of the stigma attached to a nation with perpetually warlike tendencies. And if indeed this was the gist of what westerners derived from their education in Twentieth Century history than there should be little reason to denote Germany as a perpetually warmongering state, other than the brief and malignant duration of the Nazi regime. As bad as the Nazis’ were we can’t necessarily indict the whole German people for having a predilection for war since Hitler’s rigid police state was quite scrupulous in quashing domestic dissent wherever and whenever it occurred. Similar to any nation burdened in a state of war, domestic fervor is always much more pronounced when the battlefield victories pile up one after the other, yet undoubtedly the opposite reaction can be just as boisterous if the armies in the field are plagued with defeat. That scenario was the same in Nazi Germany as it was for any other sovereign state that had experienced the up and down vagaries of war; it just wasn’t heard as loud in Germany because the Nazis’ were so thorough in controlling the message it wanted the public to hear. 

The main point this author is trying to make is not to downplay the many excesses of the Nazi regime but to disprove the correlation that the western world seemingly has made in affiliating the German people with an inherent proclivity for war and aggression. That unsupported perception is what drives the theory that advances the notion of a ‘German question’ to begin with. Yet if the theory is essentially derived from the belief that the German state was at the root cause of two of the most destructive wars in human history and that its penchant for aggression and military conquest is a deeply rooted and inextinguishable national feature, than the so-called ‘German question’ can be systematically broken down and labeled for what it truly is; the biased and unsupportable harangues of a European minority stoked with the indignation of seasoned political views and anti-German sentiment. And if we look closely to where the use of the ‘German question’ is most likely to take root and grow, we find a whole slew of extremist and contemptible, political elements that thoroughly reject the motivations for a fostering of European unity; or at least a European union without Germany playing a leading role. 

It should come as no surprise that those with the most vociferous voices in advancing the notion of a ‘German question’ emanate from some of the more insular and leftist publishing houses in Paris, London, Moscow and Rome. These reactionary forces, driven by the same punitive concepts that advanced the logic behind the thoroughly discredited Treaty of Versailles, live in a world of the past where vengeance and ethnic prejudice are the guiding principles behind all social and political considerations. It is the same misguided logic used sometimes by some of the more radical elements in the African-American community who demand compensation from their government for compelling their forefathers to a life of slavery in the American south. But Germany has already paid its dues to European society for the horrendous international crimes that the Nazis perpetrated. Before that they were saddled with humongous, excessive and quite questionable war reparations from both France and Britain at Versailles, yet Berlin stoically moved to fulfill all their obligations to the victorious Entente powers, even though their army was unfairly saddled with the lion’s share of damages caused from that blameless conflict.  

Maybe the Greeks feel justified in cajoling Germany to forgive all their debts owed to the Eurozone creditors as a supplemental act of good faith in furtherance of the compensation they already received for the excesses of the Nazi occupation of their country, but in the same sense, wouldn’t Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Afghanistan be entitled to seek compensatory damages from Athens for their peoples merciless slaughter at the hands of Alexander the Great’s armies? Therein lays the problem with the so-called ‘German question’. At what point in time can a nation expect complete exoneration for the sins of their past government’s most callous transgressions? Even more significant is the importance of determining how much of an interval of time must lapse before a vanquished nation is no longer justified in seeking reparations from their condemned assailants? France waited some fifty years to procure the retaking of Alsace and Lorraine from the Germans. When they failed militarily to take back the disputed provinces they were compelled to resort to political coercion in order to fulfill their objective politically, what they couldn’t achieve militarily for the whole duration of the war. It is little wonder why the Germans might feel a tinge of resentment for being further saddled with damage bills for French and British military operations in the Balkans and Mediterranean theaters.

We could go on to write encyclopedia volumes about the injustices conferred upon Germany by the victorious and vindictive Entente powers at the Treaty of Versailles settlement. The political upheaval that swiftly overran the country after the fall of the monarchy left the German representatives powerless to object to even the most excessive and arbitrary demands. History has bestowed upon the victors of military conflict the authority to record their achievements in a light that is never as dim as the vanquished. Nowhere was this prophetic appraisal more imbalanced and disingenuous than in the writing of the treaties that ended the First World War. Because of this Germany was unfairly encumbered with the moniker of an aggressor nation and its world renowned military institutions were repeatedly censured for being the main cog in the wheel that cultivated the growth of German militarism. France and Great Britain were both instrumental in fostering that perception throughout Europe but they did so not so much to denigrate the German people but more so to enhance and exalt their own fading status at the top of the European balance of power structure. 

Both London and Paris were frightfully aware of the immense military potential of their nemesis and were equally prepared to cooperate in a collective and war-rewarding endeavor to squelch German military and economic might for the foreseeable future. This is the way war in the balance of power structure of Europe has been traditionally fought for six centuries. Germany was fully aware of these consequences but events on the home front quickly spiraled out of control and ultimately led to the disaster on the warfront. It was their first military loss as a nation so they were somewhat tentative in fully comprehending the punitive nature of power politics at the balance of power level. Nevertheless the two political winners of the First World War, Britain and France should have been equally aware of their own vulnerability alone at the top of the balance of power structure, especially when their excessively punitive reparations mandate only served to foster the growth of militant nationalism, in a nation they had no means or capacity to contain. As a result both Britain and France proved to be great pretenders themselves and they were forced to cede their position on the world stage and clung to the power of Washington and Moscow as the most cost-effective way to inhibit German might. 

Now the roles are reversed and London and Paris have fallen farther down the totem pole by yielding to the supremacy of German economic strength. With that economic strength derives the ability to set your own pecuniary parameters to elicit growth and the economic well-being of the state. France and Britain are committed to the inclusion of Germany in a unified European political structure as the most pragmatic way to check German militarism but if it is predominantly German growth that fuels the expansion of the unified European economy than they should be obliged to concede the initiative to Berlin in leading economic policy-making for the rest of the member states. Unified Europe’s anti-bourgeois, leftist and anti-German, fringe elements are the most noticeably reluctant to yield additional powers to the Germans, just as they are always the first to grumble whenever Germany announces even the slightest of increases in military expenditures. Hence their convenient disclosure of the danger of a mythical ‘German question’, to elicit the concern of the rest of Europe whenever they feel their protests are falling on deaf ears. It is a state of affairs that the German people are all too familiar with, yet they have grown tired of always having to assuage their opponent’s fears. They are well aware of how they are perceived in the eyes of the rest of the world, especially in Europe, where it is quite conceivable that an air of suspicion will follow the German people for the rest of the century. Hence there will probably always be a ‘German question’. And as more and more time goes by the rest of the world will be more apt to refute the validity of this increasingly erroneous myth.