‘An Army with a State, not a State with an Army’
F.G. Stapleton examines the role played by the armed forces in the government of the Second Reich.
In 1906 a cause célèbre hit the front pages of the Kaiserreich. A 57 year-old ex-convict shoemaker from Berlin was arrested for impersonating an officer of the Imperial army. Wilhelm Voight had stolen a captain’s uniform of a Prussian cavalry regiment. He then commandeered two squads of soldiers from Berlin’s Neue Wache barracks, boarded a train and headed for the sleepy town of Köpenick. There, he took over the Rathaus and arrested the mayor (a lieutenant in the state reserve) and several officials on the trumped charges of ‘dereliction of duty’. In the midst of this cultivated chaos he demanded the keys to the safe. He wanted access to an imperial passport so that he could abscond from the state but only found 4,000 marks. Stoically resigned, he returned to Berlin, sent the sergeant major back to the barracks with the prisoners and retired to a café on the Unter den Linden. He went into the toilet as an officer and came out a civilian on the run. At his trial, his Defence acknowledged that this crime was only made possible due to the irrational adulation of the army within the cultural consciousness the Second Reich.
The French and British press predictably cited this as yet another example of the follies and dangers of a regime whose Kaiser promoted so zealously within Germany’s governmental institutions the ‘teutonic martial myth’. It had the dual disadvantage of making imperial Germany appear simultaneously a comic state domestically whilst also remaining a culture which promoted a blind civilian subservience to the military machine. But though patronising this farcical German dachshund, the Anglo-French were also acutely aware of its ability to bite them when they were not looking. This remained the overriding perception of the Kaiserreich in the years preceding the outbreak of World War One.
Nevertheless Nicholas Stugardt has commented that