Why is it important to serve in the military?


Military history has come a long way, in Germany as well as in other European countries and the USA. To put it bluntly, military history has developed from a niche topic with little academic reputation that is only weakly anchored in academic history to a central arena for the discussion of assumptions about the relationship between the military, civil society and organized violence in modern times. [1] The problems and starting points for the content and methodological renewal of this sub-discipline were different. In the United Kingdom and the United States, military history continues to suffer from its enormous popularity with an audience of lay and amateur historians alike. Wherever you go into a bookstore in Great Britain, the large shelf with books on "military history" catches your eye. The focus is only on one genre: the popular "battlefield history", [2] conventional narratives of famous and less famous battles as a drama that is closed in space and time. The emphasis is mainly on the portrayal of poignant individual fates and dramatic turning points, usually only from the perspective of an army whose opponent is introduced at best very schematically. Battle history can also be written outside the usual narrative patterns and can thus provide important insights into the dynamics of the war and its ongoing cultural presence. However, it is necessary to analyze the battle from a transnational perspective that looks at both armies as independent actors as well as the civilians living there. [3]

From war to military history

In Germany, the initial difficulties of military history are to be found in the so-called application method, which is aimed at application in the present. In the Prussian-German military of the empire founded in 1871, the historical processing of past campaigns contributed to the training of officer candidates and was intended to avoid repeating mistakes once made in operational planning. The focus was clearly on the history of war, which was analyzed by officers from the internal perspective of the military. The internal structure and recruitment of the armed forces in the "normal state" of peace were of no interest. [4] Even after 1918/19, when the defeat by the Allies and the demilitarization provisions of the Versailles Treaty marked a deep turning point for the German military, nothing changed for the time being. With the dissolution of the Great General Staff agreed in the Versailles Treaty, its war history department also had to look for a new home. This happened in 1919 with the establishment of the Reichsarchiv in Potsdam, which took over the files of the imperial army.

The Reichsarchiv was formally subordinate to the Reich Ministry of the Interior. But the goals and content were determined by the former officers under the first president, retired major general Hermann Mertz von Quirnheim. At the center of the official account of the First World War was an embellished history of operations that evaded all critical inquiries. A monopoly on interpretation was claimed for them, supported by the restrictive access to the files. With popular series such as the "Battles of World War", the Reichsarchiv also tried to bring its point of view to a wider public. [5] The war history of the Reichsarchiv was thus part of the bitter disputes in the Weimar Republic about the causes and consequences of the German defeat in autumn 1918. Captain George Soldan, who from 1920 headed the department for "Folk Scriptures" in the Reichsarchiv, had a Memorandum summarized the "tasks" of the military-historical work of the Reichsarchiv as follows: "[E] to stand up in a collapsed people, restore their faith in themselves, let the jointly endured happiness and unhappiness grow into German national feelings (...); the great educational value of history exploit them to lead a people who think and feel apolitical to maturity. "[6]

The university-anchored historical science was left out in all these efforts. Only the historian Hans Delbrück, who taught at the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in Berlin, tried before 1914 to break away from the "applicational" method of the General Staff and to apply the historical-critical method of historical science to the military. With the four volumes of his "History of the Art of War in the Framework of Political History" (1900–1920), he made war and the military the subject of general history. [7] With this plan, Delbrück met with rejection from both university historians and officers working as war historians. Questions of war and military history were not included in university research until the "Third Reich". There, personal and institutional networks in the so-called defense sciences were concentrated. This term, newly coined in 1926, described the intention to understand social, political and military mobilization for war in an interdisciplinary manner. Among other things, the Institute for Defense Policy established at the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in Berlin in 1937 served this purpose. [8]

There is a direct line of continuity from the defense sciences of the "Third Reich" to military history in the Federal Republic. It is embodied by Werner Hahlweg, who began his academic career in 1934 in the context of military science work at Berlin University. As one of the few protagonists of Nazi military science, he was able to continue his academic career after 1945. From 1950 onwards he worked as a lecturer for modern history in Münster, and from 1969 as a full professor for military history. He was the only professor for this subject in the Federal Republic of Germany. [9] But the most important impetus for anchoring military history in the Federal Republic came from the Military History Research Office (MGFA), an institution of the Bundeswehr that worked in Freiburg im Breisgau from 1958. Above all, the leading historian of the MGFA from 1970 to 1988, Manfred Messerschmidt, presented numerous works on the Prussian-German military and the Wehrmacht, which impressed with their broad empirical foundation as well as their impartial critical perspective. Messerschmidt was one of the first to research the fate of the deserters and "disruptors of military strength" persecuted by the Nazi military justice system and thus made military strategies of refusal an issue. [10] In the context of the MGFA, there were also initial considerations on a methodological alignment of military history with the general standards of historical studies. [11]

Since the 1980s, there has been a growing interest, especially among younger historians, in questions of military history, which has been accompanied by an expansion of content and methodology. In terms of content, among other things, the abandonment of the command perspective of officers and staff members was urged, which was still the focus in many traditional works, not only on the German military. It was to be replaced by a "military story from below". It is dedicated to those in the period before 1945 on average about 95 percent of the members of the military who served as simple soldiers or NCOs in the subordinate position of receiving orders. Their experiences and everyday life in the military should now be the focus of interest. It was clearly recognizable that the exposure of this perspective contained the danger that ordinary soldiers with the emphasis on their "story of suffering" were codified in the role of victims. [12] This was not only problematic because soldiers in peacetime as in war have a diverse repertoire of action with which they can evade the demands of the service, for example by simulating illnesses or low-threshold acts of resistance. The victim's perspective found in the "military history from below" also contradicted the discovery of soldiers as perpetrators of the war of annihilation waged by the "Third Reich" in the Soviet Union, which the controversial Wehrmacht exhibition of the Hamburg Institute for Social Research and other works highlighted at the same time. [ 13]

The methodological expansion of military history since the 1980s followed developments in general history. Most important were the impulses of the cultural and historical turnaround, which moved the interpretation patterns and collective mentalities of soldiers and officers as well as the symbolic representations of the military in public parades, celebrations and rituals into the center of the analysis. [14] Together with the reception of questions and approaches from gender, social and technological history, a multi-perspective approach to the military was anchored on a broad front. [15]

General conscription: military and nation building

A central theme in recent military history is the interconnection of the military and society. Their most important transmission belt in many European countries was the compulsory conscription of young men in the system of general conscription. When the historian Gerhard Ritter reflected on the German tradition of militarism after the catastrophe of the "Third Reich", he emphasized in deliberately dramatic terms the consequences of the introduction of compulsory service in the course of the French Revolution. The model for this was the "Levée en masse" proclaimed by the Jacobins in 1793, the summoning of young unmarried men. For Ritter, this was the beginning of a fateful development that enabled a "new, tremendously increased dynamism of warfare: an almost uninhibited use of human life" that surpassed even the "most daring general fantasies" of the past. "On the distant horizon," says Ritter, "the terrifying image of the modern 'total' war is already emerging", which is about the "total annihilation" of the enemy. [16] Here, Ritter clearly tried to trace the escalation of violence in the Wehrmacht's war of extermination from 1941 to 1945 back to a different historical line of tradition than specifically German militarism, which developed in the anti-Napoleonic wars of liberation from 1813 to 1815 and in the prominent role of the military had moved to the center of the nation state in the three national wars of unification from 1864 to 1871.

The subject of Ritters and other military historians trained in the Borussian tradition was the role of general conscription in the formation of an external nation, for which the establishment of the German Empire in 1871 and the Italian unification, which was largely completed by 1861, served as a prime example. In contrast, recent research in military history focuses primarily on the role of general conscription in the formation of an internal nation. In the Prussian reform discussion after the defeat by Napoleon in 1807, the Jacobin model of general conscription was in the foreground. This must have worried those bourgeois classes who were excluded from military service in the old Prussian military constitution that was valid up to that point. When Prussia introduced compulsory military service in 1814, the previously excluded classes were also affected. The possibility of a substitute - in which wealthy families paid a member of the lower middle class to do military service for their son - did not exist. The introduction of the so-called one-year volunteer, a shortened period of service of only one year with voluntary registration and the existence of a high school diploma, sweetened this bitter pill for the bourgeoisie. At the same time, a Landwehr was set up next to the standing army of the line, commanded by the bourgeois officers. Instead of stewing in the barracks, the Landwehr men only had to attend Sunday target practice and two-week training courses. But overall, the formative power of conscription in civil society remained low for decades. This was mainly due to the fact that, due to fiscal problems, only a small proportion of the conscripts were actually evacuated, in 1850 no more than a quarter. [17]

Despite its limited scope, conscription functioned as an "educational school of the nation" - according to the Prussian Minister of War Hermann von Boyen in 1816 - in which young men fulfilled their civic duty and in the barracks a communalization took place, which regardless of their hierarchical character was men brought together from different parts of the country and social classes. [18] In the medium term, the resistance among the liberals to the principle of the standing army, against which they stubbornly defended the Landwehr as a bourgeois alternative, also wore off. From 1830 a minority of German liberals and radical democrats placed their hopes on the Swiss militia system as an alternative to the standing army. With the renunciation of permanently organized associations and an overarching organizational structure in the form of a war ministry, it seemed to embody the liberal, self-determined opposite of the Prussian coercive apparatus. The irony of these hopes lay in the fact that, after the Sonderbund War of 1847, which founded the liberal federal state, Switzerland itself took steps to align its military constitution with Western European standards in order to accelerate the formation of an internal nation. This began in 1848 with the establishment of the Federal Military Department as a superordinate authority and was largely completed in 1874 with the introduction of a permanently organized Swiss army with uniform training. [19]

The social influence of conscription in the German states remained limited until 1867 because the states of the so-called Third Germany - especially Baden, Württemberg and Bavaria - did not follow the Prussian model, but retained the possibility of representation in various variants. [ 20] Only after the Austrian defeat at Königgrätz in 1866, with which Austria left the German Confederation and the way to found a small German nation-state was clear, did the southern German states have to adopt Prussia's military constitution, in which since the army reform of the 1860s the Landwehr has been part of the standing army was. In the protest of particularists, democrats and Catholics in Baden, Bavaria and Württemberg against the three years of compulsory service in the standing army, the term "militarism" emerged, which quickly became popular as an anti-Prussian slogan. The Bavarian politician Josef Edmund Jörg, for example, castigated the protection and defiance alliance with Prussia with the words that this was the "source from which the calamities of militarism poured out on the once so happy countries of southern Germany". This military-critical punch line of the term "militarism" should not be overlooked. It was fed by the external perception of particularists, pacifists and soon also social democrats, who complained about the negative consequences of compulsory military service for civil society. [21]

It is undisputed that it was not until the German Empire from 1871 that conscription became the most important vehicle for internal nation building with a broad mass impact, even beyond the bourgeoisie. Not least of all, the war clubs of the Kyffhäuserbund, in which former conscripts met in an egalitarian male society, testify to this. With 2.8 million members in 1913, the Kyffhäuserbund was one of the largest mass organizations in the empire. The attractiveness of these associations also lay in the fact that they offered the lower-class classes - workers and small landowners - the opportunity to demand social recognition and equality, which was based on the military service performed equally by all. [22] The militarism of the warrior associations did not produce obedient subjects, but was rather a vehicle for participation.

The greatest obstacle on the way to the formation of an internal nation by a conscript army was the linguistic and ethnic diversity of the multi-ethnic empires in Europe before 1914. Despite the large Polish minority in Prussia, the German Empire was the least affected by this. But here, too, the latent conflict between the German military and the residents of Alsace-Lorraine, annexed in 1871, broke out on a massive scale when a lieutenant in the Zabern garrison insulted Alsatian recruits and civilians in 1913. The Zabern affair quickly developed into the worst constitutional crisis in the Wilhelmine Empire. [23]

The situation in Austria-Hungary was far more complicated. Just two years after the defeat by Prussia, the dual monarchy introduced general conscription in 1868, which was based on an annually newly fixed contingent of recruits, which led to numerous disputes in the parliaments of the two parts of the country. The majority group of Germans made up just 24 percent of the total population, followed by Hungarians with 20 percent. Nine other nationality groups were officially recognized, including within the military.So the army tried to make a contribution to homogenization by carefully mixing conscripts from different nationality groups. German remained the only official command language until 1918. But there were also so-called regimental languages ​​that the officers also had to speak if at least 20 percent of their soldiers spoke them. There were regiments with up to five regimental languages. [24] This ingenious system made it possible to at least partially absorb the nationality tensions in the Austro-Hungarian Army, although it increased significantly until 1914, as the number of recruits who did not show up for recruitment, which has increased again since 1905, shows. A look at popular military celebrations and war clubs also shows that the military culture of the dual monarchy, which focused on Emperor Franz Joseph I as the paternalistic father of the country, managed to ensure the loyalty of its multi-ethnic population surprisingly well up until 1914. [25]

The situation was very different in the British Empire based on overseas possessions. The Royal Navy ensured its international standing, and so the land forces remained a comparatively tiny and, therefore, quite expensive professional army to maintain. In Great Britain "the income tax (...) replaced the military service". [26] Conscription was only introduced in 1916 in the course of the World War and was soon suspended again after its end. A crisis of the "imperial defense" occurred in the Boer War from 1899 to 1902 against the mostly Dutch settlers in South Africa. The poor health of many motherland white soldiers made headlines and exposed the inadequate care of the British working class. To win the war, Chief of Staff Lord Kitchener also had to recruit black soldiers. In doing so, he prepared the multi-ethnic composition of the British Army in World War I. [27]

Military and gender order

General conscription not only mobilized human resources with far-reaching implications for civil society and contributed to the formation of an internal nation. It also had a fundamental impact on the gender order. A long-term increasing percentage of young men had to spend two or three years in a formative phase of life in an exclusively male, closed form of communalization in the barracks. The military thus became, as the educator Friedrich Paulsen succinctly put it in 1902, the "school of masculinity". [28] Before 1914, this reformulation of male gender ideals in various forms had a formative effect on civil society. This happened through the sheen that the colorful uniforms exuded, as well as through getting used to the tight posture that soldiers and officers had to learn and that shaped their physicality.

Even before 1914, the military re-shaping of male gender images was not a straightforward process. Many peasant sons had obvious difficulties in accustoming their bodies to the precisely defined movements that the parade march demanded of them. And there were also doubts and ambivalences among the bourgeois offspring of officers, as shown by the example of Martin Niemoller, who later became theologian and member of the Confessing Church. He joined the Imperial Navy as a midshipman in 1910, but had considerable problems getting used to the harsh tone of male companionship. In 1913, he complained verbatim in his diary about the "nastiness of the meanest kind" with which many naval officers made important ideals such as family and sincere love for a woman the target of their ridicule. [29]

But the real endurance test of military masculinity did not come until the First World War, as the innovative research on the British army in particular has clearly shown. The Kitchener Army volunteers learned soon after arriving on the battlefields of Belgium and northern France that the physical reality of military service was dramatically different from the high-flying expectations of the pre-war era. In the meager living conditions of the filthy front quarters, the idea of ​​a clean and healthy male body quickly collapsed. The reality of mass physical mutilations showed that the soldierly male bodies were not up to the stresses of machine warfare. Young bourgeois soldiers and frontline officers sought emotional self-reassurance in their correspondence with their mothers in this confusing reality. But this correspondence only brought out the gentle, feminine side of her role in the military all the more. [30] In all European countries the veterans and veterans' associations responded to this shock by fleeing into the myth of camaraderie. Only in intimate comradeship among men could the horror of war be endured and the aggressive-masculine and caring-passive sides of the soldier's role balanced. After the reintroduction of compulsory military service in Germany in 1935, the comradeship myth became a supporting framework for the group culture of the Wehrmacht and also shaped the culture of remembrance of the Second World War in the Federal Republic. [31] Soldiers who did not want to follow this hegemonic masculinity model remained outsiders in the troops. It is therefore no coincidence that a non-hegemonic, unsoldier understanding of one's own masculinity was the most important common characteristic of all those Wehrmacht soldiers who evaded military service by deserting. [32]


The rapprochement between military history and the questions and methods of cultural, social and gender history over the past 30 years has given rise to new perspectives on the relationship between the military and society in the 19th and 20th centuries. With this, military history has become an important and widely recognized part of historical research. This reorientation in terms of content and methodology did not take place without defensive reflexes from individual military historians. They are convinced that the analysis of military operations must remain a "central" and thus methodologically privileged "part of the history of war". [33] There were also reservations about the fact that military history was now detached from its lifeworld anchoring in the military and practiced mainly by "unserved" civilians. If one draws one's knowledge "solely from manuals", so the objection, the "deeper understanding of military history may remain hidden". [34] But these were, in military diction, ultimately only rearguard battles that did not stand in the way of the further thematic expansion of military-historical works. [35]