Thursday, October 18, 2012

The German Wars: A Concise History, 1859-1945, by Michael A. Palmer

Today we're looking at a new text that deals with what I consider to be a rather interesting paradox of history. A very common historical stereotype is that the Germans, and the Prussians in specific who forged the modern German nation-state, are a very militaristic people. As Voltaire once said, "Prussia is not a state that possesses an army, but an army that has conquered a state." And you would think that with such a strong military tradition it would be rather difficult to defeat such a nation in the theater of war. However, as we now know from history, the vaunted German military lost two World Wars and lead to the creation of the much more peaceful economic powerhouse of Germany we know today. In The German Wars, Michael Palmer seeks to address this apparent paradox and how a much admired and imitated military could be defeated in two massive wars. 

Overall, this is a very good book and does an excellent job of explaining the development of the Prussian and later German armies during the time period Palmer covers. He first explains the origins of the myth of Prussian military supremacy by going into the mid-nineteenth century German Unification Wars which were fairly short conflicts with decisive victories in favor of the Prussians. Furthermore, Palmer explains how the mid-century wars influenced military thinking and the expectations of nations going into World War I. To provide a short answer for my readers and to summarize the main point of this monograph, the German military failed, in both World Wars, to consider the wider strategic and diplomatic repercussions of military actions. The reason Prussia was able to win the mid-nineteenth century wars was because of the actions of both Helmuth von Moltke, head of the General Staff, and Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian chancellor. Basically, Moltke developed excellent plans for the deployment of the Prussian military and had a well-trained cadre of officers who were competent on the battlefield. However, this was supplemented by Bismarck's ability to negotiate with other nations and keep a small, localized conflict from expanding into a large, industrial, and globalized conflict like the two World Wars were. Bismarck and Moltke understood that Germany was in a precarious central position and could not successfully fight a prolonged war with multiple major powers, so they used diplomatic tools to avoid such a conflict. Later German political leaders, both before and after the First World War, did not really understand the importance of such diplomatic actions and quickly found themselves isolated in Europe and surrounded by hostile states. However, the German leaders gave no such consideration to such political repercussions and threw themselves headlong into wars that quickly brought the might of expansive colonial empires such as Britian, France, and America, into the wars. Against such overwhelming material and industrial power, the Germans simply did not have a chance. 

Another major point that Palmer makes during his thesis is that the German High Command, in both wars, focused on achieving a single, decisive victory that would destroy the enemy's army and break the enemy nation's will to continue to fight the war. Specifically, German military theorists like Alfred von Schlieffen focused on the historical example of the Battle of Cannae during the Second Punic War when Hannibal encircled and destroyed a larger Roman force. What the German High Command failed to realize, and what Palmer rightly points out, is that the Battle of Cannae did not end the Second Punic War, which dragged on for another fifteen years and ended in Roman victory. The Romans were willing to raise army after army to throw at Hannibal and were undiscouraged by such setbacks and gradually wore down Hannibal's military. The same is true of both World Wars where the Allied powers would raise army after army, drawing on their global resources, and gradually wore down the Germans in a prolonged conflict.

This book is an excellent introduction to understanding the developments of military thinking in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, especially in response to the First World War. This book is very accessible to non-specialist, but it still has some excellent points that even dedicated historians such as myself will enjoy reading. I only have two major criticisms, the first being I feel this book has a rather thin bibliography and I would have liked to see a wider range of sources from the author, especially since he is the chair of the history department at East Carolina University. I also disliked how Palmer included sidebars in his monograph. While these sidebars occasionally provided more detailed information regarding specific subjects which Palmer was talking about, sometimes it was hard to see how they connected to his overall narrative. Furthermore, these sidebars usually took up several pages in the book and disrupted the overall flow of his arguments by their positioning. In addition some sidebars could have been placed at better positions in their chapters so they were nearby when Palmer referenced their subject material. 

Despite my two major issues, I think that this is a very good and very accessible history text that a wide range of audiences will enjoy. I highly recommend this for anyone interested in the World Wars and German military history. 

- Kalpar 

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