On the rise of German militarism

On the rise of German militarism

The long-term rise of Japanese militarism that culminated in the Pacific War in World War 2 was painstakingly documented in Meirion and Susie Harries’ excellent “Soldiers of the Sun,” a template that ought to give pause to Americans today.  Briefly, the Meigi consitution required that there be a military cabinet secretary. If that secretary resigned, the government fell. Once the military realized the leverage they had, they used it repeatedly and for ever larger reasons, until they controlled the government. They used it as militaries tend to do, seeing “poor little Japan” beset by enemies on all sides.  But vanquishing one enemy simply moved the border. There was always a border, and there was always a nervous and potentially hostile state on the other side of it. The sequence kept playing out until finally there was a sleeping giant on the other side of the border, a giant who was awakened, and then angrily squashed them like bugs.

But no comparable historical account has apparently been done with regard to the similar ascent of the German military. In fact, the received wisdom is on the order of, “How could such a refined culture that gave rise to Goethe, Bach, and Beethoven have turned into a military totalitarian state?” As it turns out, the ascent was gradual but inexorable result of a system built on a military version of the Hastert rule.  A great book is out there, I suspect, but since it isn’t let me give my poor attempt at a sketch.

What brings me to this conclusion is a little-known (at least to probably 99% of Americans) event during World War 1.

But first, some background….



When I was a schoolboy, Europe disappeared from the textbooks between 1783 and 1914, with the exception of a brief cameo appearance explaining that England’s impressment of American sailors was a cause of the War of 1812. In the past few years, I’ve read a number of histories to fill in that gap.

In the 19th Century and up until 1914, when European civilization was at the absolute apogee of its power, something like 25% (my rough guess) of its total population emigrated, almost all of it to the US. That’s a breathtaking statistic. But consider that in 1914, the technologically modern European society of railroads, subways, telephones, telegraphs, photography, electricity and lighting, and even the beginnings of cars, planes, radio, and movies, was controlled politically by heredity monarchs and their supporting hereditary aristocracies. Only France and Britain were the exceptions (and even in Britain, despite Parliamentary ascendancy, the aristocratic power structure still existed in large part).  By contrast the United States really was a breath of fresh air.

And for the next 30 years, that aristocratic European civilization all but destroyed itself as statecraft utterly failed in the most thoroughgoing and comprehensive way.

For all of the talk of entangling alliances, the outbreak of World War 1 can be traced to the personal failures of two monarchs: Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas. Wilhelm, as I’ve previously written, was a virtual doppelgänger for Donald Trump. He could have had the alliance he craved with the United Kingdom had he not indulged in his colossal vanity project of building up the German Navy to no useful end. Tsar Nicholas, meanwhile, was a virtual twin of his cousin King George VI of England – a private, hidebound, middlebrow family man with no talent for actual governing. Unfortunately, unlike George, in his case it actually mattered.

Both Nicholas and Wilhelm had the same fundamental failing of being unable to oversee their militaries.  Thus in both cases in 1914 the militaries had one and only one scheme for mobilization. In the case of Russia, Nicholas only wanted to mobilize against Austria-Hungary, but was faced with the fact that Russia’s only mobilization plan – which he had never paid attention to before – had an inextricable part of mobilizing against Germany. Germany’s sole plan, in turn – which Wilhelm had never paid attention to before – necessarily included a first strike against France through neutral Belgium. A previous plan that called for defense in the West while attention was focused on Russia, had been shelved and was no longer available to him. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Even so, a competent monarch with able diplomats might have seen that once Germany’s “Schlieffen” plan to take out France failed in 1914, it was unlikely to win a two-front war of attrition. But with the temporary advantage of having conquered a large amount of territory, it could have traded Belgium and most of its conquest in northern France (or held small parts hostage) in return for a separate peace with Britain and France.

Even an incompetent monarch who at least had some judgment for talent might have seen that his oldest son, Crown Prince Wilhelm, was an able commander and shrewd observer of the military, and deferred to him or even abdicated so that disaster could have been averted.

But what did happen, and the event that I did not know of previously, and that brings me back to the title of this post, is that the Kaiser became a virtual puppet of his own military, and was all but displaced in a military coup in 1917.

That’s right. The absolute ruler of Germany, during the last 18 months of World War 1, was no longer in control, displaced by a du-umvirate of Generals Hindenberg and Ludendorff. How could that come to pass?

The answer, it seems, as a alluded to in my opening paragraph, was a military version of the Hastert rule. It starts with the historical truth that East Prussia begat Prussia, which begat West Prussia, which begat northern Germany, which begat Imperial Germany at the conclusion of the Franco-Prussian War. Each stage of expansion was a result of military conquest and assimilation. And at each stage the original landowner and military caste of East Prussia, the Junkers, maintained effective control — much as the military caste did in Japan after the Meiji Restoration. Thus, even after 1870, Prussia was first among equals in the new German state, and the Junker Generals were the Kaiser’s power base in Prussia. The civil government in the new Reichstag had no power whatsoever over the military. That was vested entirely in the Kaiser.

For his entire reign spanning over 30 years, Kaiser Wilhelm lionized the military. They were held up as the epitome of the German state. All the military did was take Wilhelm at his word. When the incompetent, narcissistic Wilhelm ceded control of strategy to the military Chiefs of Staff in 1914, with no ability for civil oversight, the military simply treated him like the proverbial mushroom, keeping him in the dark and feeding him, um, only trivial good news. Thus, for example, Wilhelm was never told about Germany’s huge offensive around Verdun, France in 1916 in advance. He only learned of it in the newspapers.

As the war of attrition – greatly aided by Britain’s successful naval blockade – worsened, Germany’s military needed more and more of society’s resources to be fed into it. The civil government had no real authority to act, and the feckless Wilhelm was, well, feckless. So the military commanders – the early war heroes Hindenberg and even moreso his lieutenant Ludendoff – took matters into their own hands, simply brushing Wilhelm aside. They threatened to resign unless Wilhelm gave them their way. Wilhelm blinked. Ultimately, according to one account, Hindenberg took for himself the Kaiser’s title of “Supreme Warlord.” Ludendoff apparently confessed to Crown Prince Wilhelm that he didn’t actually want the power, but nobody else was acting, so he had to himself.

Once Germany’s military had de facto full control, all avenues of diplomacy that may have existed evaporated. First the military was sure that the War in the West would be over before America could enter it in response to unrestricted submarine warfare. Then they were sure that no American troops would ever land in Europe. Then Ludendorff was sure that a spring 1918 offensive would win the war before there were enough American troops in Europe to make a difference. Then Germany’s reserves were exhausted and the remaining French, British, Canadian, and Anzac forces – together with a million new American troops – simply rolled them back for 100 days before the military had the civil government agree to an armistice on any terms (thus seeding the “stabbed in the back” fallacy – that Ludendorff himself became a vigorous proponent of – which came back to haunt Europe).  So overwheleming were the number of American troops that one of the reasons Clemenccau and Lloyd George agreed to the armistice quickly before reaching German soil was to prevent the detested Woodrow Wilson from dictating the terms of peace.

So, German militarism did not suddenly appear in 1934. It had been there all along, growing in stages as Prussia did over the course of at least two centuries, taking over more and more territory as the German imperial state was assembled.

And now we are in 2018 America, where the deification of the military – in reaction against the Vietnam war dissidence – has grown apace at for the last 30 years. It has reached the point where none dared oppose Trump’s completely unsolicited and unsupported $300 Billion increase to the military budget this year. Once the military realizes that it has a de facto veto power over the US’s budget, what happens next? It seems there is a template.