What a Difference A Century Makes

By Robert M. Citino
12/12/2010 • Fire for Effect

During the Thanksgiving holiday, I experienced a high honor, being asked to speak at the French Military Academy at Saint-Cyr.  It was a great trip, interesting and professionally rewarding.  Sure I missed being home for the holidays, but it’s not easy to turn down an invitation from Saint-Cyr.  It’s like refusing to take a call from Napoleon.

Every time I travel to Europe, I have the same experience.  I feel as if I’ve come unstuck in time.  I’ve spent a lifetime reading about Europe at war; sometimes it seems like that’s all I do.  When I think about Europe, I think about war.  I call to mind the great campaigns and battles.  I think about Frederick the Great turning the Austrian position at Leuthen on that wintry December day in 1757; I dream of Davout’s incomparable march to the sound of the guns at Austerlitz; about a distraught Napoleon III going into enemy captivity inside the Prussian Kessel at Sedan; about the “old Contemptibles” of the BEF holding the line at Mons.  And, of course, I obsess on the high drama of World War II:  the years of German victory, highlighted by an even more successful battle of Sedan in 1940; the Wehrmacht’s massive armored drive on Moscow in 1941 and then again towards Stalingrad and the Caucasus in 1942; the “unstable year” of 1943, with the Western Allies taking their first tentative steps onto the offensive in Sicily and Italy.  Finally, the great turning of the wheel: the largest amphibious operation of all time in Normandy, followed by the massive mechanized campaign across France and the Rhine, driving into the heart of the Reich and meeting up with the Soviets at Torgau on the Elbe river in 1945. 

German defeat and Allied victory in the greatest war of all time:  this is what Europe means to me.  That mindset, however, is increasingly out of date. Like all historians, I am literally and figuratively stuck in the past.  I obsess on war, but today, the odds of another war erupting in Europe are so small as to be practically non-existent.  Oh sure, you still see some violent indicators around the periphery:  trouble in Bosnia, the Russian invasion of Georgia, violent separatists in the Basque country, the occasional Irish irreconcilable. 

But war in the classic style?  Not a chance.  Historians should “never say never,” but I think it is safe to say that we never will see the modern German Bundeswehr launch that third great Panzerstoss on Sedan.

During the two days of the conference I attended, I listened to 18 scholarly papers (and delivered one).  The paper topics dealt not with conflict, but with cooperation.  We heard about the origins of the European Coal and Steel Community after 1945, as well as the Common Market and its successor, the European Union.  In the military sphere, the scholars assembled at Saint-Cyr talked not about Europe’s violent past, but kinder, gentler topics like the Franco-German Brigade and the multinational Eurocorps.  Indeed, the very term “Europe” has become a synonym for trans-national cooperation, as in “the French are interested in Europe.”  My own paper–on Prussian-German operational patterns, the “German way of war”–seemed almost impolite in such a setting. By and large, operational military history, the kind that discusses warfighting, campaign, and battle, was absent from the conference.  I’m pretty used to that by now.  Campaign history has all but disappeared from the continent.  Its epicenter today is the English speaking world, Great Britain and especially the United States. 

Still, my trip to Europe made me think:  what a difference a century makes!  A hundred years ago, the French and Germans were preparing feverishly to slaughter one another.  The notion of them being in bed together would have struck any educated person as absurd.  Today, the notion of them ever fighting again seems equally so.

Maybe I need to get with the times.

Next week:  a walk through Paimpont.

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