On October 20, 1943, the German émigrés Herbert Marcuse, one of the most prominent theorists of the Frankfurt School, and Felix Gilbert, a noted historian, both of whom were working for US intelligence, submitted a secret report entitled “The Significance of Prussian Militarism for Nazi Imperialism” to the Office of Strategic Services.1 It rejected the widely held thesis that Nazi tyranny was rooted in Prussian militarism and pointed instead to the importance of German capitalism, with its pro-Nazi industrialists and petty bourgeoisie. “The requirements of modern warfare,” Marcuse and Gilbert noted, “undoubtedly led to a democratization of the army, to new relations between officers and men, and to a decline of the Prussian ‘spirit.’”
The political climate of the time was not in their favor. At the end of World War II, Allied leaders were convinced that Prussian militarism, which they considered central in shaping the German national character, was at least in part the cause of Hitler’s war in Europe. To prevent future German aggression, it was to be eradicated through demilitarization and reeducation. “The Hun,” Winston Churchill declared, “is always either at your throat or at your feet.” “Nazi tyranny and Prussian militarism,” he insisted, “are the two main elements in German life which must be absolutely destroyed.”
This belief also influenced the broader debate in the postwar years about the historical origins of Nazism. Some historians claimed that there had been a uniquely authoritarian and militaristic German Sonderweg (special path), which deviated from the historical path followed by Western Europe and led from Prussia—some traced it back as far as the Teutonic Knights—to the Third Reich. The idea of a deep-rooted German militarism also shaped the political self-image of the young Federal Republic; its first president, the liberal Theodor Heuss, lamented that his country had been feared as “the bellicose nation” of Europe.
There were reasons for such a view. Prussia had been highly militarized. It was, according to an eighteenth-century aphorism sometimes attributed to Voltaire, an army with a state rather than a state with an army. The country was to some extent prone to waging war because of its geopolitical position in the center of Europe, surrounded by powerful neighbors. Territorial integrity could only be guaranteed by an authoritarian state capable of mobilizing men and matériel whenever necessary. At the same time, Prussian society was shaped by a hierarchical culture of obedience. German militarism was encapsulated in Otto von Bismarck’s notorious 1862 statement that “the great questions of the day” would be decided only “by iron and blood.” Imperial Germany, born out of the violence of the nineteenth-century wars of unification, appeared to have inherited these features. It seemed difficult to ignore this past when explaining Germany’s twentieth-century bellicosity.
Yet there have always been strong objections to reducing Prussia to an authoritarian polity and to seeing Nazi aggression as rooted in Prussian militarism. Opponents of this view have ranged from left-wing intellectuals like Marcuse and Gilbert, who emphasized the economic forces behind Nazism; to liberals, among them the journalist and historian Sebastian Haffner, who invoked Prussian traditions of tolerance; to conservative and aristocratic writers such as Marion Dönhoff, who, eager to salvage Prussia’s glory, depicted the Nazi regime as a historical aberration detached from the Prussian past.
Over the last few decades this revisionism has become dominant in historical writing. It is now highly fashionable to dismiss the Sonderweg thesis. Historians have criticized the idea of a path, inevitable or not, toward Nazi barbarism as teleological; emphasized that the history of every country follows a special path, thereby questioning the notion of a “normal” path; and at the same time, perhaps paradoxically, challenged narratives of national exceptionalism, claiming that Prussia and later Germany weren’t that different from other European countries.
Military historians, though the most qualified to weigh in on these controversies, have, strikingly, usually stayed out of them. Iron and Blood by Peter H. Wilson, the Chichele Professor of the History of War at All Souls College, Oxford, now addresses the question. Wilson argues that the history of war in German-speaking lands is too complex to be pressed into simple narratives that concentrate on Prussian militarism. “It is time to defrost German military history,” he asserts, “and to bring it in line with the way that the rest of the German past is being written about.”
Wilson provides a bold survey of over half a millennium of warfare that stands out among traditional German military histories, which usually focus on the period from the wars of unification through World War II, and covers today’s Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, not just Prussia. He offers an in-depth study of the impact of war on German society over the centuries, delving into the evolution of technology and weaponry, resources and the war economy, tactics and strategy, military organization and planning, and the lives and experiences of soldiers. His book is a masterful demonstration of the great potential of the new military history that has emerged over recent decades as scholars, distancing themselves from an older generation mainly interested in chaps and maps, have begun to pay more attention to the social, economic, and political aspects of war.
Iron and Blood begins around 1500 in the murky world of the Holy Roman Empire, a patchwork of states in the largely German-speaking center of Europe. The authority to use force in these lands was highly fragmented. Warlords led armies of mercenaries, the so-called Landsknechte, who were often foreigners, at a time when there was not yet a sense of military duty—or national allegiance—among the population. Some contemporaries, among them Machiavelli, who had himself suffered at the hands of German soldiers, complained that mercenaries lacked loyalty because they were not fighting for a higher cause.
The emergence of territorial states resulted in more organized military forces. Standing armies, maintained in times of both war and peace, emerged in the region after the Thirty Years’ War of 1618–1648, although Wilson points out that the Habsburgs already had one on their military frontier with the Ottoman Empire nearly a century earlier. The establishment of permanent armies, together with the institutions required to maintain them, was intertwined with the emergence of the modern state. As the sociologist Charles Tilly put it: “War made the state and the state made war.”2
Among the many polities of German-speaking Central Europe, almost all of which had their own armies, the Habsburg and Prussian monarchies became the most powerful. Military professionalization was also reflected in the shift from individual command to a general staff. One of the last monarchs to lead his troops personally into battle—at a time when the practice had largely vanished—was Prussia’s Frederick the Great, who on several occasions only narrowly escaped capture or death.
War was a constant phenomenon in early modern Europe, in contrast to the medieval period, when armed conflicts were intermittent and localized. Wilson brings to life the brutal world of early modern soldiery in shocking detail. The men’s uniforms were often inadequate, their rations poor, their pay infrequent. Soldiers were subjected to harsh disciplinary measures for even minor offenses. The most notorious punishment in the Prussian army was forcing offenders to run the gauntlet: they were made to walk between two lines of one hundred of their comrades who would beat them with hazel switches as drummers drowned their screams. The process was typically repeated between six and thirty-six times. Anything over ten runs would be spread out over several days. More than thirty runs was considered a death sentence, with the coffin carried to the punishment ground in advance. Barbarous punishments, such as forcing soldiers to chew their socks or to eat their own excrement, were common well into the nineteenth century.
Death rates were high. The main threat to a soldier’s health was not combat but disease—bubonic plague, typhus, syphilis. Charles V’s army reputedly lost half of its men to disease while campaigning in Bavaria in the fall of 1546. The skeletons of one in eight soldiers excavated from the Thirty Years’ War battlefield of Wittstock showed signs of third-stage syphilis. Disease caused no less than 75 percent of Austrian fatalities and a staggering 95 percent of Bavarian casualties in the Seven Years’ War of 1756–1763. Given the poor medical conditions, minor wounds often led to death from infection.
Wilson also looks at the impact of early modern warfare on civilians. Marauding armies spread terror across Central Europe. Horror stories of plunder, rape, infanticide, cannibalism, and captives being roasted alive were based on actual experiences. Forced requisitioning of livestock and food by armies that lived off the land regularly caused mass starvation. The wealthy and powerful in occupied territories could be taken hostage, tortured, and killed; on some occasions, town authorities were forced to dress in bizarre costumes and dance for their captors’ amusement. The notion that war was god’s punishment for human sin remained pervasive in early modern society and was only slowly replaced by the concept of war as a rational necessity to achieve political goals.
The nineteenth century, after the Napoleonic Wars, was more peaceful throughout the region. It was the German wars of unification—against Denmark (1864), Austria (1866), and France (1870–1871)—that shaped the idea of an aggressive German militarism across Europe. In contrast to earlier epochs, more soldiers fell on the battlefield, as a result of deadlier weapons, while fewer succumbed to disease, as a consequence of medical innovations—such as advances in bacteriology and the invention of antiseptics—and professional field nursing.
On the eve of World War I, the German military elite was convinced that a major European war was inevitable. In preparing for it, the generals believed that only a quick, decisive attack could bring victory. The Schlieffen Plan, conceived earlier in the century by the chief of the General Staff, Alfred von Schlieffen, and later revised by his successor, Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, envisaged the encirclement of the French enemy by a rapidly advancing German army. It was “a huge gamble,” Wilson writes, based on “a false belief that decisive victory was possible” in a short war.
The major weakness of the strategy was that there was no backup plan if the first assault was unsuccessful. When it failed to bring down the Entente’s defenses in 1914—despite some initial victories, such as at the Battle of Tannenberg—the overwhelmed German General Staff was caught unprepared for the war of attrition that followed. Faced with enemies that had much greater resources, Germany could not, in the long run, win such a conflict. Taking us from the shores of Pacific islands to the trenches of Verdun, Wilson shows how World War I—fought with machine guns, tanks, and poison gas—changed warfare. Medical advances now enabled soldiers to survive horrifying injuries, though they were often left crippled and physically disfigured.
At the beginning of World War II, twenty-one years later, the German military elite was similarly fixated on a tactical fantasy of rapid victory and showed little interest in long-term strategic planning. To be sure, the early Blitzkrieg successes in 1939–1940 seemed to justify their confidence. Yet when this strategy proved unsuccessful in the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, the Germans had no contingency plans in place for a prolonged global conflict. The Allies vastly outmatched them in men and matériel. Facing a huge shortage of soldiers, Berlin started recruiting volunteers across Europe. Wilson tells us, for example, that “half a million Balkan and Soviet Muslims served Germany during the war.” The Germans, as a result of coercion and indoctrination, fought to the end. Strikingly, the Waffen-SS, despite its status as Hitler’s elite force, suffered higher desertion rates than the Wehrmacht overall.
Wilson offers only sporadic insight into the violent conditions in wartime Europe. His coverage of Nazi war crimes—including the killing of millions of Soviet prisoners of war through starvation and neglect, the murders of commissars, the terrorizing of civilians (particularly Jews), and scorched-earth tactics—remains cursory.
The post-1945 years, Wilson argues, were by no means a period of antimilitarism in Germany, as they are often portrayed. As the cold war took shape, both the Federal Republic and the GDR (and Austria) remilitarized relatively quickly, drawing on the expertise of the wartime generation. Obligatory military service made the army experience part of the lives of the entire male population of both countries.
German reunification finally led to new debates about Berlin’s military engagement in the world as part of its international responsibilities. The era of noninvolvement in conflicts slowly came to an end. While Chancellor Helmut Kohl avoided direct participation in the 1991 Gulf War, sending 18 billion deutsche marks to mollify Washington, his successor, Gerhard Schröder, agreed to intervene in Kosovo in 1994. Schröder’s foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, justified this with reference to Germany’s historical responsibility for Auschwitz—the traditional postwar argument for pacifism—arguing that their own past obligated Germans to prevent another genocide. Following September 11, Schröder promised Washington “unlimited solidarity”; when, at a reception in Berlin later that fall, I inquired into the practical consequences of such a far-reaching promise, the chief of staff of Schröder’s Chancellery, Franz-Walter Steinmeier (now Germany’s president), reacted with irritation. Though German forces were sent to Afghanistan’s Kunduz Province, the limits of Berlin’s unlimited solidarity were reached in 2003, when it refused to support George W. Bush’s war in Iraq.
Looking back over the centuries of military history, Wilson shows that there was often a deep divide between generals and politicians. Military leaders, averse to political control by civilians, frequently showed little interest in long-term political goals. This was in stark contradiction to the doctrine of the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, who in his book On War (1832) advocated the primacy of politics and considered war only a continuation of politics if diplomacy failed.
The problem was that the generals were often wrong. The idea of a distinct German military genius, rooted in a martial spirit, ruthless tactical efficiency, precise strategic planning, and technological superiority, is a myth, Wilson argues, nothing more than a Prussian propaganda slogan that emerged after the victories in the wars of unification. The narrow fixation on the tactic of a knockout blow to achieve a swift victory, obsessively employed by generations of military leaders who feared lengthy wars against superior enemies, and the recurrent lack of long-term strategic planning made the German war machine highly vulnerable. Initial battlefield successes in the world wars were followed by complete defeat. Indeed, it is surprising that, given this balance sheet, the myth of a German “genius for war” persists. It remains openly admired in some popular anglophone military histories consumed by armchair generals. In Germany, too, Wilson observes, the idea of German soldiers as natural warriors has recently been revived by right-wing historians as a source of inspiration for today’s Bundeswehr.
The notion of a “Prussian militarism” that shaped German society, which Wilson criticizes, is in the end not so much refuted as relativized through his book’s broad geographical and temporal perspective. The long view shows that German history was often marked by extended periods of peace—1553–1618, 1815–1848, 1871–1914, and 1945 to the present. “The post-1990 reunified Germany,” he observes, “has now existed for almost three times as long as the Third Reich, while the entire, largely peaceful era since 1945 is longer than that between 1870 and 1945.” Iron and Blood thus offers a corrective to the military histories that focus on the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when militarism was a major German characteristic.
The broader geographical perspective allows Wilson to show that it was Austria-Hungary, not Prussia, that for centuries was the most aggressive, domineering power in the German-speaking lands. Moreover, the military in German-speaking Central Europe was—in its organization, doctrines, and budgets—often not much different from those in other parts of the continent. “If anything is ‘special,’” Wilson notes, “then it is the fact that German development was characterized by military and political decentralization far longer than most other European countries.”
It is also worth pointing out that having experienced the horrors of war, Germany also developed a strong antimilitarist movement, a theme Wilson could have explored in more depth. There is a deep-rooted pacifist Enlightenment tradition, reaching back to Kant’s Perpetual Peace (1795). An influential intellectual like the eighteenth-century Prussian historian Johann Wilhelm von Archenholz, himself a former officer, criticized the Soldier King Frederick William I for turning Berlin into a “copy of Sparta” that was “dedicated to Mars where despotism in its most grotesque form bared its teeth”; some of the greatest German writers, from Goethe to Nietzsche, distanced themselves from Prussia’s anti-French bellicosity. Wilhelmine culture, undeniably deeply militaristic, provoked a powerful antimilitarist response, much of it satirical, such as Heinrich Mann’s ingenious novel Man of Straw, completed on the eve of World War I. Carl Zuckmayer’s influential play The Captain of Köpenick (1931) masterfully mocked imperial Germany’s authoritarian, militarist, uniform-obsessed culture of obedience.
The trauma of World War I led to a flood of pacifist writing, from Erich Kästner’s moving poem “Do You Know the Country Where the Cannons Bloom?” to Kurt Tucholsky’s brilliant essay “The Guarded Theater of War,” which claimed that “soldiers are murderers.” The interwar art of George Grosz ridiculed the pompous general with his monocle, medals, and metal helmet. Erich Maria Remarque’s antiwar novel All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) became an international best seller. Indeed, there are few countries that have produced a pacifist culture as fine as that of twentieth-century Germany. And yet before 1945, these works were overshadowed by writings that celebrated and romanticized war, such as Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel (1920), which glorified the cathartic “steel bath” that forged a new man.
Overall it seems difficult to dispute the fact that for long periods in their modern history, Prussian and then German societies were deeply shaped by a militaristic culture. This was never just a myth. The picture may be more complicated if we look at the early modern period, yet here too the bellicosity apparent in German-speaking lands is remarkable, and it was in the eighteenth-century Prussia of Frederick William I and his successor Frederick the Great that a highly militarized society emerged. The attempt to make these facts appear less significant by expanding the temporal perspective, back to 1500 and up to 2000, and the geographical range, to Austria and Switzerland, is not always convincing. After all, the claims about the importance of militarism conventionally refer to a specific time and place, from the Prussia of the two Fredericks to imperial Germany, with aftereffects until 1945.
Wilson at one point admits that “Germany’s reputation for excessive militarism,” which was consolidated during World War II, was at least “partially justified.” It is a phenomenon that historians need to explain, sociologically and anthropologically, without falling into determinist interpretations based on assumptions about the existence of inherent character traits. He rightly cautions against “a cultural explanation, rooting German militarism in Prussia’s ‘blood and soil’ in an inversion of how nineteenth-century nationalists celebrated those same characteristics.”
Moreover, historians should ask themselves whether it is not time to move beyond lazy bashing of the Sonderweg thesis. Every historical phenomenon—including Nazi aggression—is the result of a special path that we need to understand with all its contingencies, and reflections about historical causes are not inevitably teleological.
Iron and Blood is packed with detailed, at times overwhelming information, which does not leave much room for generalization. While the inclusion of Austria is sensible, that of Switzerland—at least in the period after the Congress of Vienna (1814–1815), when it embraced neutrality—does not seem particularly necessary. Yet the book is thoroughly researched, sprinkled with well-chosen anecdotes, and full of surprising, counterintuitive observations. Military history, a field often dismissed as methodologically uninspiring and politically conservative, can be, as Wilson shows, one of the most erudite forms of historical scholarship. Iron and Blood is also, ultimately, a deeply humane book that leaves no doubt that there is nothing romantic about war, reminding us of the ancient motto dulce bellum inexpertis—war is sweet to those who have never experienced it.
Today Germany is undergoing a major shift in its self-perception as a military power. Its European neighbors no longer see it as a military threat—quite the opposite. Although it now has one of the highest defense budgets in the world, it has been increasingly pressured by its allies to play a more significant part in the West’s security arrangements. When Donald Trump repeatedly demanded an increase in German military spending to 2 percent of the country’s GDP, the official NATO target for each member state (which the majority of them do not meet), and threatened to punish Berlin by pulling US troops of the country, US-German relations reached yet another low point.
Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine has given new urgency to demands for greater German militarization. Three days after Russian tanks crossed into Ukraine in early 2022, Chancellor Olaf Scholz gave his Zeitenwende (turning point) speech announcing an enormous surge in military spending—an investment of €100 billion in the army and an increase in the annual defense budget so that it would exceed 2 percent of GDP—thus signaling an end to the postwar pacifist consensus. The hawkish coleader of the ruling Social Democrats, Lars Klingbeil, announced that “Germany must strive to become a leading power” and accept “military force as a legitimate political tool.”
Unsurprisingly, this shift has caused some controversy. Jürgen Habermas, the most prominent living member of the Frankfurt School, warned in an essay in Süddeutsche Zeitung earlier this year, following Berlin’s agreement to provide Kyiv with Leopard tanks, against an escalation of the country’s military involvement in Eastern Europe. As war has returned to the continent, Germany is struggling to find its place in this new reality. And as it departs from its postwar consensus as a “civilian power,” it remains haunted by the ghosts of its war-torn past.