Case Study 2, Germany Before 1945, Step Two: Determine the Failure’s Indicators

This seems a good deal cleaner than the earlier protocol.

Germany failed to achieve its supposed security in WWI, or its quest for Poland and European Russia and the ethnic cleansing, to borrow a modern term, in WWII.

  • Step One: Define the Failure–DONE
  • Step Two: Determine the Failure’s Indicators–WORKING
  • Step Three: Identify the Contributing Social, Economic, Political, Demographic and Environmental Causes of the Failure(s)
  • Step Four: Identify the Military Factors(s) If Any
  • Step Five: Analyze Each Identified Factor
  • Step Six: Stop, Think, and Ask: Does This Make Sense?
  • Step Seven: Publish and Duck

Surrender in 1918 and 1945 are not necessarily indicators of failure. Those may have come earlier. How? Let’s look.

The policies and actions of 1914 that led to the surrender in 1918 aren’t that hard to pin down, but we’ll do that later. What we need to do NOW is the failure’s indicators. Were there any before the surrender? Arguably, yes. First, Wilhelm II’s “surprise” and “anger” that both England and Russia “played him false” in his desire for peace during the summer of 1914. Analyzing Willie’s earlier and subsequent behavior, this analyst has to say that this was an act; it almost had to have been. His cousin George V of Great Britain, as a constitutional monarch, had relatively little control over foreign policy, which was in the province of his prime minister and the cabinet. Nicholas II had somewhat more power, but not a great deal. Wilhelm wasn’t stupid, but he may have been slightly naïve. Though Germany’s diplomats had tried to contain the crisis to the Balkans, the German military couldn’t.

The Schlieffen Plan, Its Myths and Misunderstandings

Alfred von Schlieffen became the head of Germany’s Great General Staff during a period of tumult in European strategic theory. He inherited an organization that had been politically marginalized, and thus its influence on policy was questionable if it had any at all. The entire idea of strategy as practiced by the legendary Fredrick II (‘the Great”) and as executed by Helmuth von Moltke was thrown into a muddle by its own success against the French in 1871. Though the French armies were crushed quickly in that conflict, the French people were not, compelling the German coalition to divert tens of thousands of troops in rear area security duties. What was more, after Napoleon III was captured, the French declared another Republic and formed an even larger army than had already been defeated. Though they were eventually beaten, the fact that the quick victory that the Prussians/Germans had traditionally enjoyed didn’t occur caused no end of dithering about strategy. In the end, the Great General Staff’s strategic planning was based on a very public debate about national warfare and, essentially, imperial war.

Schlieffen, however, proceeded with a traditional German military plan of envelopment that projected the use of more forces that the German Empire could muster…ever. Even with reserves, the plan outlined in the famous Memorandum of 31 December 1906 and all the drafts (there were several and a few fragments here and there that made it into the final version) required roughly two and a half million men to execute. Germany could not mobilize that many trained soldiers at once, regardless of the reservist’s status or numbers. It was written mainly by Schlieffen himself and partly by his successor, Helmuth von Moltke (the Younger; nephew of the Elder).

Critiques and criticisms of the Schlieffen “Plan” are many. Let’s just suffice it to say it was barely a “plan” at all, other than “at the outset, we invade France through Belgium and Luxembourg, drive to the Channel coast and swing south around Paris.” The overall army commander would lead twenty-odd corps commanders in a massive battle that would smash the French again. This was the heart of the “plan” that supposedly was used in 1914.

This analyst submits that the execution of the “plan” in 1914 wasn’t Schlieffen’s, but Moltke the Younger’s, who filled the position of the chief of the Great General Staff after Schlieffen’s retirement in 1906. He envisioned one of four options, all of which required a quick victory against France so that the army could turn and deal with Russia. It sounds familiar because this was the extent of German strategic military planning in 1914 and 1939.

German Strategic Thought and the Lack Thereof

Germany had this problem as a military state: Their only diplomatic tool (after Bismarck) was a hammer (the military), so every problem was treated like a nail. Though this lack of adaptability may be a cause of the ultimate failure, it is also an indicator of impending failure that was foreseen in Britain at least before 1914. Given the size of the German Navy in 1914, it seemed almost as if it were a plaything of Wilhelm II. While the Kaiser loved all things British, he seemed to hate Britain itself–and his British mother–with something of a passion. Enamored of uniforms and parades, Wilhelm is often portrayed as a child in a man’s body. His apparent outrage at his cousin George V’s support of Russia and France in 1914 may have been mere posturing, but perhaps not.

Both John French and Douglas Haig observed that, while the German military machine was impressive and dangerous in 1914, German strategic direction seemed to lack focus under Moltke the Younger.  While the much-vaunted Schlieffen Plan(s) was a bold stroke, Germany never had the forces required to pull it off…and both France and Britain knew it. Furthermore, German violation of Belgian neutrality and their subsequently brutal treatment of that tiny country raised international ire, especially in the United States. Germany’s unquestioning support of Austria-Hungary in the Serbian crisis in the summer of 1914 would indeed have diluted German power if the Dual Monarchy ran into trouble in the Balkans…which they did. But Moltke supported sending precious German assets to assist Vienna’s quest for vengeance. This overextension of not-infinite resources on two fronts doomed the German Empire the longer the conflict lasted.

Similarly, Germany’s primary planning tool in the summer of 1939 seemed to have been hope: Hope that Britain and France wouldn’t make good on their promises to Poland. While Britain and France were tired and frightened as nations, they were still dangerous enough for Hitler and his generals to be wary of them. So wary, indeed, that they offered an olive branch to Stalin, who eagerly took it. But in 1940, after Germany smashed the French and British armies, the olive branch Hitler extended to Britain was snubbed in large part because the “European Peace” offered would leave no vestige of any of the minor powers intact. However, in a larger sense, Hitler’s actions and promises made ad broken in the past didn’t leave a great deal of confidence that he would keep his promises. Indeed, history showed that he was only truly loyal to himself and Mussolini.

Indicators of failure, in other words, came early, often before the conflicts that brought Germany low. They may appear to be military in origin, but not entirely. We’ll see about this next time.

Why the Samurai Lost Japan, Kindle Edition

By the time you read this, you should be able to see it at your favorite booksellers. There’s a constant tug on the behalf of this book to venture upon a Solomons/New Guinea/Battle for Australia book that treats that long campaign as Japan’s Verdun, the campaign that largely broke the back of the IJN.

More on this later.

Case Study 2, Germany Before 1945; Part 1: Where and When The Failure Occurred–Germany

The consistent common element to the failure of Germany in 1945 seems to be…Germans. Why?

Before we go off and say, “it’s the Germans that caused their own problems,” we should think carefully about what made the Germans fail. This correspondent was at a convention a few years back, talking to one of the leading authorities on WWI about WWI. I had just finished my essay for The Meuse Argonne Companion (ABC-Clio 2011), and I was planning a Major Work on the US in WWI (that I never wrote). Exactly how we got to Germany’s seeming duality of faiths, keeping to the old Germanic myths while going to church, I cannot recall, but I do remember saying that the German lands seemed to have been “incompletely Christianized.” My interlocutor nodded and replied, “incompletely Romanized.”

What’s that to do with anything?

The Northern Crusades in the Baltic and what became Prussia (1147-1410) were violent struggles to bring Christianity to those who didn’t know it and lasted longer than those other Crusades against Islam that we learned about in grade school. Admittedly the “Crusades” appellation is a 19th-century handle, but the concept was the same: bringing Christianity to the pagans. Morality aside, the one thing that the Roman Church brought to the table then as now is a stable and consistent social organization and set of laws. Churches are far more than just places to go on Sunday; they are community centers. Also, for most European states, the Church controlled the civil courts and thus civil law, something no non-Christian faith did.

Small wonder that central Europe resisted for so long. Small wonder, too, that Martin Luther of Saxony-Anhalt (1483-1546) in what was then the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation triggered the Reformation and the creation of Protestantism. Crusading might have allowed Luther to be a monk, but the long resistance based in part on the disputation of central authority made the disparate, disputatious states of the Empire a hotbed of revolt. Rebelling against the Roman Church, however, triggered, among other things, the many French Wars of Religion (1562-98) and the Thirty Year’s War (1618-48).

The Thirty Year’s War was when the Swedes, French, Spaniards, and Italians were determined to fight it out right down to the last German.

All this started when a few guys were thrown out a third-story window in Prague (they survived the seventy-foot drop, by the way). This defenestration started the Bohemian Revolt, which caused Catholic and Protestant to mobilize on each other. The concept of “turnip winter” was born during this prolonged bloodletting, but it was more like a “turnip generation” for the Germans caught between the rampaging armies. According to some authorities, the soldiers took what they wanted because the various princes who organized them and brought them to fight couldn’t afford to pay them off. Eight million dead later–including six and a half million civilians–Europe signed all sorts of treaties declaring that it would never happen again. The Thirty Year’s War was the last of Europe’s wars triggered strictly by religion, but it was hardly the last of Europe’s wars.

Along with Saxony and Bavaria, Prussia-Brandenburg went their own way as far as foreign policy was concerned, paying lip service and taxes to the tottering Empire while Europe kept hiring well-drilled Prussian soldiers for their armies. They were well drilled because hiring out soldiers was a source of revenue for the cash-poor Hohenzollern monarchy. Everyone wanted some Prussians as a backbone or striking force or both. Of course, other states of the Empire with enough men to spare started doing the same, including the Hanovers, who took charge in England after the end of the Stuart dynasty in 1714. Then came Napoleon, and we already talked about what his effects were…one of them, anyway.

But there was another.

German national colors since 1992

Many Germans looked at the themes of liberty of the French Revolution with some envy. They dreamed of removing the arbitrary rule of the ancien regime and replacing it with stability–the kind of stability Germans hadn’t known for generations. During the War of Liberation (1813-14) against France, Prussia-Brandenburg called on all Germans to rise up and throw off the French yoke. It worked. The Gold and Iron campaign of 1813 saw women and schoolchildren gathering precious metals to help pay for the armies. Men and boys joined the new Landwehr volunteer units popping up all over. The most famous of these was the Lutzow Free Corps units, made up of volunteers from all over the German-speaking lands. Eschewing the old Prussian blue or the many local alternatives, their uniforms were black, with red piping and bright brass buttons. The crowds loved them, and black, red, and gold have been the colors of German flags (except for the 1933-45 flags) ever since.

In 1871 the Prussian strongmen took charge of a united German Empire. Then in1918, the Weimar Republic was born, and then died in 1933. And then came the Armageddon of 1945.

The where of the failure of Germany is obvious: Germany’s leading candidate for national leadership, Prussia-Brandenburg, was aided by the German’s love of strongmen. Cash-poor because its poor soil could barely support subsistence agriculture, a monarchy, and commercial trade, Prussia used its army to raise money. Eventually, Germany used the military for everything.

Perhaps we can narrow down the question of when the failure occurred to those desperate times while multiple armies were rampaging across Germany during the Thirty Year’s War. No churches, no pagan gods could save millions from disease, starvation, or the rapine of sick and starving soldiers. But other armies could. Germany may not have existed as a state yet, but it did as a sentiment.

It may be a stretch, but this evaluation is going with Prussia-Brandenburg for where and the Thirty Year’s War for when.

Next time, we’ll look at similar cases…if we can find any.

Case Study 2, Germany Before 1945; Part 1: Where and When The Failure Occurred–1918

It has been observed that this is the THIRD segment of PART 1…but that observer was reading out of sequence, so I get it.

By November 1918, the German Army was on the edge of disintegration. It had started to fall apart in late summer–the traditional date is 8 August. Still, they were coherent enough to withstand heavy American/Allied blows in France, Italy, and the Balkans. The draft class of 1915–seventeen-year-old boys–was in the trenches. Putting the class of 1916 in uniform that winter–sixteen-year-old boys–was being contemplated. The Army did not have long to live. The Navy, after being ordered out to sea for a last, suicidal battle with the British Royal Navy (and a sizable US Navy squadron with them), mutinied under the dreaded red banner of Bolshevism. In the Argonne and elsewhere, American and Allied troops finally broke into the areas behind the German fortification zones that had held them up for three years. Open warfare put them in German territory, and the Germans were running out of options. On the home front, children younger than six were scarce; turnips were the most common fare. Fuel was scarce, and the prospect of another winter of British blockade was unthinkable.

Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, the two officers who had been practically running Germany, counseled Kaiser Wilhelm II to ask their enemies for terms. The victors of Tannenberg could see the proverbial writing on the wall. Germany had lost the Great War that they had contemplated, planned for, anticipated since 1871. 

What happened in 1871? Germany happened again. 

This was the Second Reich, proclaimed after the French surrender after the Franco-Prussian War (called the War of 1870 in France). It was the second because the first, the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (Heiliges Römisches Reich Deutscher Nation in German), started in 800 AD and ended in 1806. Numbers aside, Wilhelm I, Hohenzollern King of Prussia, nervously proclaimed himself emperor (kaiser) of the German Empire, which was to include Prussia and the states that comprised the North German Confederation, a customs union that included the independent kingdom of Saxony and would later include those of Saxony, Bavaria, and Württemberg. Further, it included a mix of duchies, grand duchies, principalities, and free and Hanseatic cities. What had been many became one under the undoubted leadership of Prussia.

Why Prussia? Who else?

An 18th Century French statesman was said to have observed that Prussia was not a state with an army but an army with a state. For a century and more, after the end of the Thirty Year’s War in 1648 (of which, more later), Prussia had been hiring out their soldiers to whoever had the money to pay for them, usually states of the Empire. The soldiers they provided were not only willing, they were steady and generally capable. Other Empire states would send their young men to learn the arts of war under the Prussians. In 1771 the first Hohenzollern King of Prussia-Brandenburg, Fredrick II–Fredrick the Great–took the title that he and his heirs and successors would hold for another century and a half. Prussia was best known for its holdings on the Baltic, but Brandenburg was inland and included Berlin. 

Fredrick was a good soldier; by all accounts, a fair monarch. That said, his career has been exaggerated in its influence on the arts of war. He was steady, and he had more nerve than a toothache, but “genius” probably isn’t appropriate; More like utilitarian. He used a familiar pattern of tactics for Germans that would be seen all the way to 1945: encirclement by rapid movement–the Kesselschlacht, or cauldron-battle.  The style predated Fredrick in Prussian-style warfare, and against most European opponents, it was pretty devastating. The Prussians had developed this way of war because a glance at any map would show that most of Germany is relatively flat and featureless, practically inviting invasion–witness the Thirty-Year’s War. This style of warfare developed during a period when there were more sieges than open battles, and soldiers in most armies were thought to be little better than rabble. 

Most armies, that is, except the Prussians. Theirs were well-disciplined rabble.

And there were very few of them because Prussia-Brandenburg was anything but rich or populous.

They won more than they lost, right up to 14 October 1806, when Napoleon defeated them badly in two battles on the same day at Jena and Auerstat. But that defeat imbued in the survivors a burning desire to figure out where they failed, and their greatest weakness–they knew before but never addressed–was in staff work. For those of you who don’t know what that is, it’s the dull, unexciting, tedious drudgery involved in getting armies from here to there on time and well-supplied. And it’s a great deal more involved than most people think. It’s actually a great deal more complicated than most non-staff-trained officers believe. But Napoleon had already got there with his Maison de L’Empereur–Imperial Household–system. It was how Napoleon could run his empire from the saddle. The Prussians took that military and civil planning system, sifted through it, and came up with the general staff. In the iteration pioneered and taught by such worthies as Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, each staff officer was trained in precisely the same way, to perform all the planning tasks the same way, from procuring uniforms and food to moving an army from one point to another. 

Mind you, this wasn’t battle planning; it was everything before and after the battle. The same plans and procedures were followed, modified for weather, seasons, terrain, and the size of the force, at every level, from company to army.

But they did not vary depending on the opponent.

The same principles and techniques were applied to the entire country. They performed the same planning for attacking Russia in 1812, at Napoleon’s side for a while. It was in Russia that the general staff system was honed and tested and redone and retested. It was in the 1813 campaign and in the 1815 campaigns that it was tested again and again. By the middle of the 19th century, it was pretty clear that Prussia could mobilize and field an army faster than any other army on Earth. 

Defeating Austria in 1866 was comparatively easy…everyone knew that. Defeating France in 1870? That, according to the “experts,” was miraculous.  So Prussia took charge of the German Empire in 1871.
So, Central Europe was dominated by the heirs of Fredrick The Great, who could march faster and fight longer and better than nearly anyone else. They also had a larger population than France and a burgeoning industrial base supported by the most sophisticated rail system in the world. And everyone everywhere started copying the German General Staff system. 

In 1888, Wilhelm I died and was succeeded by Fredrick III…who was also dying. He died in the same year, and Wilhelm II took the throne. 

This shouldn’t have been of great concern, but it was because Wilhelm II would never be ready to run a country like the second German Empire. Immaturity was his middle name, and he wanted to make his empire greater than that of his cousin’s…the British Empire. Hand in hand with Wilhelm was a German admiral named Alfred von Tirpitz, who wanted the same thing. Thus began an arms/naval/industrial race that ended in 1918 mainly because Wilhelm promised Austria-Hungary–more or less–that he could defeat all the rest of Europe…or at least beat them to a standstill. The result was seen in 1918.

The preceding suggests that Germany’s magnificent war machine of 1914 was crushed by four years of brutally unprecedented industrial war. While it was, there was the small question of why Germany went to war against half the world and expected to hold their own. They could, but not indefinitely.  Another suggestion is that Wilhelm was the problem. Yes, and he was the absolute ruler of Germany…and there was no one in Germany after he fired Bismarck in 1890 who could tell him ‘no.’ But Wilhelm was easily led by strong minds, like Tirpitz.

The “why” has a great deal to do with that machine and the enormous self-confidence it bestowed on Germany. It was in many ways better than any other war machine up to that time. But it could not outlast the resources of all of Europe and certainly could not outlast the resources of the United States. Planning could not provide experienced soldiers; no plan could provide food where it wasn’t available. No monarch’s pronunciations could maintain the collapsing morale of hungry men.

Some say that the Germans surrendered in 1918 to keep from seeing a victory parade down the Kurfurstendamm in Berlin. Some others say that Britain and France accepted that surrender to keep that victory parade from being led by the Americans.

So, who or what failed in 1918? From the foregoing…the Germans were too arrogant by half. Could the same be said in 1945? Perhaps. Let’s see next time.

On the road/entertaining for much of September, folks, so I’ll cut this short. More next month.