Richard Overy

The roots of 20th-century German aggression

Long before the rise of Prussian militarism, German states fought bitter internecine wars and provided formidable mercenaries for other nations, says Peter Wilson

Sixteenth-century Landsknechts (German mercenaries) by Ludwig Burger. [Alamy]

It is the contention of Peter Wilson, professor of the history of war at Oxford University and the author of an acclaimed history of the Thirty Years’ War, that military historians have focused too much on the German wars of the 20th century in trying to understand German ‘militarism’ as a distinctive characteristic – a ‘genius for war’ imitated by others. As he points out, Germany and Austria lost the first world war, and Germany, with Austria now attached, lost the second as well. A ‘genius for war’ evidently needs some rethinking.

Wilson wants to place these modern wars in perspective, stretching back to the 15th century. To understand how German lands (the small German states, Austria and Switzerland) reached their modern destinations entails studying the long journey from medieval Europe to the present. The book moves from the struggles of Reformation central Europe, through the Thirty Years’ War, the dynastic conflicts of the 18th century and revolutionary and Napoleonic warfare before reaching the age in which Habsburg Austria, with its large (non-German) empire, and Prussia became the dominant German polities. Switzerland almost disappears, its ‘perpetual neutrality’ endorsed by the Great Powers in 1815 and respected ever since, even by Hitler, who briefly toyed with occupation.

From 1831 to 1973, the French Foreign Legion counted 40 per cent of its recruits from German lands

While each century produces fresh and fascinating details on military organisation, recruitment, tactics, weaponry and attitudes to warfare, there is much less in Iron and Blood on the evolution of German military culture and practice over time than its introduction seems to promise. Every age is particular to itself, as it should be, but what this contributes to understanding the modern German military as a product of deep and diverse historical roots is not clear. The Napoleonic wars seem the natural break point – after which the development of the modern military establishment in the German lands can be traced and evaluated with greater historical precision; and indeed most of the book focuses on the past 200 or so years, taking the story up to Germany’s participation in Nato.

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