‘Because they were German’

The continuity and contextualisation of German military history across five centuries.

Austria becomes German. Entry of the German police in Imst (Tyrol)
Austria becomes German: entry of the German police in Imst (Tyrol), Austria, March 1938. National Archives at College Park.

‘Germany must strive to become a leading power’ and accept ‘military force as a legitimate political tool’, Lars Klingbeil, co-leader of Germany’s ruling Social Democratic Party, said in the summer of 2022. Many of his colleagues were disturbed by his words. ‘To talk of Germany as a leading power is completely wrong’, said the head of the party’s youth wing: ‘We need to learn from our history’. The war in Ukraine has brought Germany to a crossroads. Allies demand that Europe’s largest power play a role in the continent’s security. But, after the destruction of two world wars, many Germans are wary of bolstering their country’s military.

The idea that Germany followed a volatile Sonderweg (‘Special Path’) to modernity has gradually been replaced with a more nuanced picture of the country’s political, economic and social history as it became a confident democracy. German military history, by contrast, seems frozen in time. The idea of a country burdened by fears of encirclement and predisposed to strike first continues to be widely believed, including in Germany itself.

‘It’s time to defrost German military history’, says Peter H. Wilson in Iron and Blood: A Military History of the German-speaking Peoples since 1500. Wilson is the author of highly acclaimed histories of the Holy Roman Empire and the Thirty Years’ War; Iron and Blood is similarly ambitious. Declaring that ‘preoccupation with the era of the two world wars has stunted debate’, Wilson casts his chronological net across five centuries. This longue durée approach allows for a change of perspective. The book begins more than three centuries before Prussia became the leading German-speaking power, making the cultural determinism that equates supposedly Prussian characteristics like obedience and efficiency with German militarism difficult to maintain. Instead of rigid Prussian overlordship, the 16th century saw highly personalised command structures across the German-speaking lands, which reflected the decentralised and multi-layered nature of political authority. And yet, as conflicts like the Thirty Years’ War show, fragmentation of German power did not guarantee peace and stability in central Europe.

The centralisation of military authority that followed the foundation of the German state in 1871 did not lead to a well-oiled military machine either. German military efforts, including during both world wars, were marked by ad-hoc improvisation rather than precision planning. The Anschluss, Germany’s annexation of Austria in March 1938, for example, may have looked impressive in Nazi propaganda. As 100,000 troops marched across the border backed by 400 planes, the cameras captured row upon row of disciplined men executing a well-planned occupation to perfection. In reality, Wilson writes, ‘the operation had been improvised at forty-eight hours’ notice. Many German reservists lacked complete uniforms, while their vehicles ran out of fuel’. Yet, whether out of fear or admiration, myths of German military prowess continue to be perpetuated.

Arguing that ‘militarism has indeed been integral to the German past’, Iron and Blood does not set out to exonerate Germans. But it challenges lazy notions of continuity. Germany’s extremely violent conduct in the colonies it acquired from the late 19th century onwards, for example, has been interpreted as an intrinsic strain of German military culture that would culminate in the Holocaust. Outlining the brutal actions of the governor of German South West Africa that led to the near-extermination of the Herero and Nama people, Wilson concludes that they ‘undoubtedly constituted genocide, but attempts by several authors to draw a direct line “from Windhoek to Auschwitz” imply a false continuity and inevitably’. To see the Holocaust as the pinnacle of a German propensity for genocidal warfare ‘risks denying agency to those involved and thereby exculpating them’, he warns. In each case individuals chose to partake in genocide. The question of why they did so demands more complicated answers than ‘because they were German’.

Iron and Blood is also ambitious in its contextualisation of military history, drawing on political, economic and social developments. An examination of civilian responses to conflict challenges the notion of Germans as uniquely war-like. The violence of the Thirty Years’ War ‘clearly filled civilians with dread’, writes Wilson. ‘Horror stories abounded, relying on common tropes such as rape, infanticide, cannibalism, and captives roasted alive.’ Germans found this no easier to bear than others.

Wilson also highlights strands of continuity in German military history. The most dangerous is a fixation with quick victory that reduces warfare to a strategic exercise, detached from reality and purpose. Those who continue to search the history of the Second World War for ‘turning points’ replicate ‘the German General Staff’s own narrow view of warfare as primarily tactical’, says Wilson. Perhaps the war could have been prolonged, but ‘the Allies had a fivefold economic advantage’. Ignoring such overwhelming odds and failing to plan towards long-term goals was a key weakness.

Importantly, Iron and Blood reaches beyond 1945, challenging the illusion of 1945 as ‘Zero Hour’. East and West Germany each found ways to remilitarise, but neither did so by starting from scratch. The reunified country has remained somewhat paralysed by its supposedly deterministic military history.

But paralysis is no longer an option now that the war in Ukraine has asked serious questions of Germany. Berlin has decided to invest €100 billion into the armed forces, but there has been little effort to build a wider vision around this momentous decision. While Germany cannot leave its past behind, it can learn from it, if it dares to look. Just as the country has shown it can build a stable democracy given time and careful thought, so it could build a capable military force committed to achieving clear and viable objectives in conjunction with its allies. In this context, Wilson’s Iron and Blood is a timely book, arguing powerfully that ‘German history should not be read backwards’.

Iron and Blood: A Military History of the German-speaking Peoples since 1500
Peter H. Wilson
Allen Lane 976pp £40
Buy from bookshop.org (affiliate link)


Katja Hoyer’s Beyond the Wall: East Germany, 1949-1990 will be published in early 2023.