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Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany

Isabel V. Hull, (Cornell University Press, 2005), 384 pages, $24.95.

Over the past twenty years, there has been a fundamental rethinking of a number of important issues dealing with the history of the German army. In the case of its tactical and operational effectiveness, historians have, since the appearance of Timothy Lupfer’s study in the early 1980s, looked to the performance of the German army in adapting to the World War I battlefield for a fuller understanding of the advantages that the Wehrmacht enjoyed in the first years of World War II.

Similarly, we now understand that the criminal conduct that accompanied the Wehrmacht’s actions contributed to Adolf Hitler’s racial war to cleanse Europe of its “biologically inferior” races. What has not been so clear is what made members of that military organization willing to cooperate so enthusiastically in the crimes of the final solution.

Isabel Hull of Cornell University has now made a major contribution to uncovering the dark and unfortunate origins of the German military’s behavior in World War II. In particular, in the first decade of the twentieth century, she finds the German experiences in the colonial wars against the rebellious Herero tribe of southwest Africa suggest a military culture that was already beginning to spin out of control—one that was already accepting, with a most appalling willingness, the “military necessity” of the wholesale slaughter of noncombatants.

Hull’s argument is, one must note, sophisticated and careful. She fully understands that the other European powers were hardly more humane in their treatment of their subject colonial peoples in the years before World War I.

The Belgians immediately spring to mind for their ferocious behavior in the Congo, while the British treatment of the white Afrikaners during the Boer War involved the invention of concentration camps. But unfortunately, because of the German army’s position within the Kaiserreich, those tendencies were subject to few countervailing controls.

What Hull has done in this work is to examine one of the crucial elements involved in the organizational behavior of armies and navies: namely, their culture. In the case of the German army, before and during World War I that culture came to believe in achieving military necessity in a way that almost entirely eliminated political, strategic, and especially humane concerns. War became simply a matter of what was of immediate utility.

There were, of course, exceptions. Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria not only objected to some of the worst military excesses but also actively took steps to mitigate their impact on civilians. However, the German military culture was running in very different and darker directions.

Hull finds that the Germans carried overall too much of the baggage from the colonial wars of Africa into their behavior in the opening months of World War I. Bedeviled by legends of French partisans in the Franco-Prussian War—the franc-tireurs—the Germans executed approximately six thousand civilians in Belgium and northern France, reacting to supposed partisan actions.

That the Belgians dared to resist the German invasion of their territory undoubtedly exacerbated German behavior. Allied propaganda exaggerated the extent of German war crimes, but by the standards of today, or 1914 for that matter, these actions were egregious.

The Germans then introduced poison gas and strategic bombing, forcibly evacuated Belgian workers to the Reich, devastated nearly a thousand square miles of French territory in Operation Alberich in 1917, and tried to devastate northern France in 1918 as the German army retreated—all in the name of military necessity. When the war was over, Germans were outraged that the Allies took a few small parcels of territory from the Reich and imposed reparations on Germany for the damage its military had caused.

Hull believes that German military leaders—Erich Ludendorff in particular—were planting the seeds for the catastrophic behavior of the Wehrmacht during World War II. Did these German actions decades earlier make those crimes inevitable? Certainly not, nor is that Hull’s argument. But when the course of history brought about the inflation of 1923, the even more disastrous Great Depression, and then the rise of Adolf Hitler, far too many German officers were willing to accept the Nazi regime’s definition of military necessity—one that meshed all too well with their own.

As Hull suggests: “Imperial Germany and its military culture exemplify Hannah Arendt’s insight that ‘the danger of violence, even if it moves consciously within a nonextremist framework of short-term goals, will always be that the means overwhelm the end.’ In the Kaiserreich, that is exactly what happened.” Absolute Destruction is an extremely important book, not only for scholars but also for all those interested in the history of the German army in the twentieth century.


Originally published in the Spring 2007 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here