Military history



Every Man a Soldier

The First [World] War explains the second and, in fact, caused it, in so far as one event causes another,’ wrote A. J. P. Taylor in his Origins of the Second World War. ‘The link between the two wars went deeper. Germany fought specifically in the Second War to reverse the verdict of the first and to destroy the settlement that followed it.’

Not even those who most vehemently oppose Mr Taylor’s version of inter-war history will take great issue with those judgements. The Second World War, in its origin, nature and course, is inexplicable except by reference to the First; and Germany – which, whether or not it is to be blamed for the outbreak, certainly struck the first blow – undoubtedly went to war in 1939 to recover the place in the world it had lost by its defeat in 1918.

However, to connect the Second World War with the First is not, if the former is accepted as the cause of the latter, to explain either of them. Their common roots must be sought in the years preceding 1914, and that search has harnessed the energies of scholars for much of this century. Whether they looked for causes in immediate or less proximate events, their conclusions have had little in common. Historians of the winning side have on the whole chosen to blame Germany, in particular Germany’s ambition for world power, for the outbreak of 1914 and hence to blame Germany again – whatever failing attaches to the appeasing powers – for that of 1939. Until the appearance of Fritz Fischer’s heretical revision of the national version in 1967, German historians generally sought to rebut the imputation of ‘war guilt’ by distributing it elsewhere. Marxist historians, of whatever nationality, have overflown the debate, depicting the First World War as a ‘crisis of capitalism’ in its imperialist form, by which the European working classes were sacrificed on the altar of competition between decaying capitalist systems; they are consistent in ascribing the outbreak of the Second World War to the Western democracies’ preference for gambling on Hitler’s reluctance to cross the brink rather than accept Soviet help to ensure that he did not.

These views are irreconcilable. At best they exemplify the judgement that ‘history is the projection of ideology into the past’. There can indeed be no common explanation of why the world twice bound itself to the wheel of mass war-making as long as historians disagree about the logic and morality of politics and whether the first is the same as the second.

A more fruitful, though less well-trodden, approach to the issue of causes lies along another route: that which addresses the question of how the two World Wars were made possible rather than why they came about. For the instances of outbreak are themselves overridingly important in neither case. It was the enormity of the events which flowed from the upheavals of August 1914 and September 1939 that has driven historians to search so long for reasons to explain them. No similar impetus motivates the search for the causes of the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 or the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, critical as those conflicts were in altering the balance of power in nineteenth-century Europe. Moreover, it is safe to say that had Germany won the critical opening battle of the First World War, that of the Marne in September 1914, as she might well have done – thereby sparing Europe not only the agony of the trenches but all the ensuing social, economic and diplomatic embitterment – the libraries devoted to the international relations of Germany, France, Britain, Austria-Hungary and Russia before 1914 would never have been written.

However, because it was not Germany but France, with British help, who won the Marne, the First – and so the Second – World War became different from all wars previously fought, different in scale, intensity, extensiveness and material and human cost. They also came, by the same measure, closely to resemble each other. It is those differences and those similarities which invest the subject of their causation with such apparent importance. But that is to confuse accident with substance. The causes of the World Wars lay no deeper and were no more or less complex than the causes of any other pair of conjoined and closely sequential conflicts. Their nature, on the other hand, was without precedent. The World Wars killed more people, consumed more wealth and inflicted more suffering over a wider area of the globe than any previous war. Mankind had grown no more wicked between 1815, the terminal date of the last great bout of hostilities between nations, and 1914; and certainly no sane and adult European alive in the latter year would have wished, could he have foreseen it, the destruction and misery that the crisis of that August was to set in train. Had it been foretold that the consequent war was to last four years, entail the death of 10 million young men, and carry fire and sword to battlefields as far apart as Belgium, northern Italy, Macedonia, the Ukraine, Transcaucasia, Palestine, Mesopotamia, Africa and China; and that a subsequent war, fought twenty years later by the same combatants over exactly the same battlefields and others besides, was to bring the death of 50 million people, every individual and collective impulse to aggression, it might be thought, would have been stilled in that instant.

That thought speaks well for human nature. It also speaks against the way the world had gone between 1815 and 1914. A sane and adult European alive in the latter year might have deplored with every fibre of his civilised being the prospect foretold to him of the holocausts that were to come. To do so, however, he would have had to deny the policy, ethos and ultimately the human and material nature of the state – whichever state that was – to which he belonged. He would even have had to deny the condition of the world which surrounded him. For the truth of twentieth-century European civilisation was that the world it dominated was pregnant with war. The enormous wealth, energy and population increase released by Europe’s industrial revolution in the nineteenth century had transformed the world. It had created productive and exploitative industries – foundries, engineering works, textile factories, shipyards, mines – larger by far than any at which the intellectual fathers of the industrial revolution, the economic rationalists of the eighteenth century, had guessed. It had linked the productive regions of the world with a network of communications – roads, railways, shipping lanes, telegraph and telephone cables – denser than even the most prescient enthusiast of science and technology could have foreseen. It had generated the riches to increase tenfold the population of historic cities and to plant farmers and graziers on millions of acres which had never felt the bite of the plough or the herdsman’s tread. It had built the infrastructure – schools, universities, libraries, laboratories, churches, missions – of a vibrant, creative and optimistic world civilisation. Above all, and in dramatic and menacing counterpoint to the century’s works of hope and promise, it had created armies, the largest and potentially most destructive instruments of war the world had ever seen.

The militarisation of Europe

The extent of Europe’s militarisation in the nineteenth century is difficult to convey by any means that catch its psychological and technological dimensions as well as its scale. Scale itself is elusive enough. Something of its magnitude may be transmitted by contrasting the sight Friedrich Engels had of the military organisation of the independent North German city-states in which he served his commercial apprenticeship in the 1830s with the force which the same German military districts supplied to the Kaiser of the unified German Reich on the eve of the First World War. Engels’s testimony is significant. A father of Marxist theory, he never diverged from the view that the revolution would triumph only if the proletariat succeeded in defeating the armed forces of the state. As a young revolutionary he pinned his hopes of that victory on the proletariat winning the battle of the barricades; as an old and increasingly dispirited ideologue, he sought to persuade himself that the proletariat, by then the captive of Europe’s conscription laws, would liberate itself by subverting the states’ armies from within. His passage from the hopes of youth to the doubts of old age can best be charted by following the transformation of the Hanseatic towns’ troops during his lifetime. In August 1840 he rode for three hours from his office in Bremen to watch the combined manoeuvres of the armies of Bremen, Hamburg, Lübeck free city and the Grand Duchy of Oldenburg. Together they formed a force a regiment – say, to err on the side of generosity, 3000 – men strong. In the year of his death in 1895 the same cities provided most of the 17th and part of the 19th Divisions of the German Army, together with a cavalry and artillery regiment – at least a fourfold increase. That accounts for only first-line troops, conscripts enrolled and under arms. Behind the active 17th and 19th Divisions stood the 17th and 19th Reserve Divisions to which the Hanseatic cities would contribute an equal number of reservists – trained former conscripts – on mobilisation. And behind the reserve divisions stood theLandwehr of older ex-conscripts who in 1914 would provide half of another division again. Taken together, these units represent a tenfold increase in strength between 1840 and 1895, far outstripping contemporary population growth.

This enormous multiplication of force was nevertheless in the first instance a function of demographic change. The population of most states destined to fight the First World War doubled and in some cases tripled during the nineteenth century. Thus the population of Germany, within the boundaries of 1871, increased from 24 million in 1800 to 57 million in 1900. The British population increased from 16 million in 1800 to 42 million in 1900; but for the Irish famine and emigration to the United States and the colonies, producing a net outflow of about 8 million, it would have tripled. The population of Austria-Hungary, allowing for frontier changes, increased from 24 million to 46 million; of Italy, within the 1870 frontiers, from 19 million to 29 million, despite a net outflow of perhaps 6 million emigrants to North and South America. Belgium’s population grew from 2.5 to 7 million; that of European Russia between the Urals and the western frontier of 1941 nearly tripled, from 36 to 100 million. Only two of the combatant states, France and the Ottoman empire, failed to show similar increases. The French population, once the largest in Europe, rose only from 30 to 40 million and chiefly through extended longevity; the birthrate remained almost static – the result, in Professor William McNeill’s view, of Napoleon’s returning warriors bringing home techniques of birth control learned on campaign. The population of Turkey within its present frontiers scarcely increased at all; it was 24 million in 1800 and 25 million in 1900.

The French and Turkish cases, though falling outside the demographic pattern, are nevertheless significant in explaining it. The increased longevity of the French was due to improved standards of living and public health, the outcome of the application of science to agriculture, medicine and hygiene. The failure of the Turkish population to increase had an exactly contrary explanation: the poor yields of traditional farming and incidence of disease in a society without doctors ensured that population, despite high birth-rates, remained at a static level. Whenever increased agricultural output (or input) combined with high birth-rates and improved hygiene, as they did almost everywhere in Europe in the nineteenth century, the effect on population size was dramatic. In England, the centre of the nineteenth-century economic miracle, it was spectacular. Despite a massive emigration of the population from the countryside to the towns, overcrowded and often jerry-built, the number of the English increased by 100 per cent in the first half and by 75 per cent in the second half of the century. Sewer-building, which ensured the elimination of cholera from 1866 and of most other water-borne diseases soon after, and vaccination, which when it was made compulsory in 1853 eliminated smallpox, sharply reduced infant mortality and lengthened the life expectancy of the adult population; death from infectious disease declined by nearly 60 per cent between 1872 and 1900. Improved agricultural yields from fertilised and fallowed fields, and, in particular, the import of North American grain and refrigerated Australasian meat, produced larger, stronger and healthier people. Their intake of calories was increased by the cheapening of luxuries such as tea, coffee and especially sugar, which made grain staples more palatable and diet more varied.

The combined effect of these medical and dietary advances on growing populations was not only to increase the size of the contingents of young men liable each year for conscription (classes, as the French labelled them) – by an average of 50 per cent, for example, in France between 1801 and 1900 – but to make them better suited, decade on decade, for military service. There is an apparently irreducible military need for a marching soldier to bear on his body about 50 lb of extraneous weight – pack, rifle and ammunition. The larger and stronger the soldier, the more readily can he carry such a load the desirable marching norm of twenty miles a day. In the eighteenth century the French army had typically found its source of such fit men among the town-dwelling artisan class rather than the peasantry. The peasant, physically undernourished and socially doltish, rarely made a suitable soldier; he was undisciplined, prone to disease and liable to pine to death when plucked from his native heath. It was these shortcomings which prompted Marx a hundred years later to dismiss the peasantry as ‘irredeemable’ for revolutionary purposes. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, the peasant populations of Germany, France, Austria-Hungary and Russia had so much improved in physique that they were regularly supplying to their national armies a proportion of new conscripts or classes large enough to give Marx the lie. His analysis may have been skewed by his standpoint in England, where large-scale emigration to the towns left only the least enterprising under the thumb of squire and parson. In the continental lands, which were industrialising more slowly than England – the German rural population in 1900 was still 49 per cent of the total – it was the countryside which yielded the classesof large, strong young men out of which the great nineteenth-century armies were built.

If the new population surplus yielded by better diet, drugs and drains increased the European armies’ recruiting pool, it was the nineteenth-century states’ enhanced powers of head-counting and tax-gathering which ensured that recruits could be found, fed, paid, housed, equipped and transported to war. The institution of regular census-taking – in France in 1801, Belgium in 1829, Germany in 1853, Austria-Hungary in 1857, Italy in 1861 – accorded recruiting authorities the data they needed to identify and docket potential recruits; with it died the traditional expedients of haphazard impressment, cajolery, bribery and press-ganging which had raised the ancien régime armies from those not fleet enough of thought or foot to escape the recruiting sergeant. Tax lists, electoral registers and school rolls documented the conscript’s whereabouts – the grant of the vote and the introduction of free education for all entailed a limitation as well as an enlargement of the individual’s liberties. By 1900 every German reservist, for example, was obliged to possess a discharge paper specifying the centre at which he was to report when mobilisation was decreed.

The enormous enlargement of European economies was meanwhile creating the tax base by which the new armies of conscripted recruits were supported; the German economy, for example, expanded by a quarter between 1851 and 1855, by a half between 1855 and 1875 and by 70 per cent between 1875 and 1914. From this new wealth the state drew, via indirect and direct revenue, including the resented institution of income tax, an ever-increasing share of the gross domestic product. In Britain, for example, the government’s share of consumption rose from 4.8 per cent in 1860-79 to 7.4 per cent in 1900-14 and in Germany from 4 per cent to 7.1 per cent; rises were proportionate in France and Austria-Hungary.

Most of this increased revenue went to buy military equipment – in the broadest sense. Guns and warships represented the costliest outlay; barracks the more significant. The ancien régime soldier had been lodged wherever the state could find room for him, in taverns, barns or private houses. The nineteenth-century conscript was housed in purpose-built accommodation. Walled barracks were an important instrument of social control; Engels denounced them as ‘bastions against the populace’. The sixteenth-century Florentines similarly regarded the building of the Fortezza de Basso inside the gates of their city as a symbol of the curtailment of their liberties. Barracks were certainly a principal means of guaranteeing that ready availability of force by which the Berlin revolt of 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1871 were put down.fn1 However, barracks were not only the precinct-stations of the contemporary riot police. They were also the fraternity houses of a new military culture in which conscripts learnt habits of obedience and forged bonds of comradeship which would harden them against a battlefield ordeal more harrowing than any which soldiers had known before.

The new-found wealth of the nineteenth-century state enabled the conscript not only to be housed and equipped but also to be transported to the battlefield and fed amply when he arrived. The soldier of the ancien régime had been scarcely better supplied than the Roman legionary; flour ground in the regimental hand-mills, supplemented by a little beef driven on the hoof, was his staple. The nineteenth-century conscript was fed in the field on preserved food; margarine and canning were both the products of a competition founded by Napoleon III to invent rations that would not rot in the soldier’s pack. However, the necessity for him to carry his own supply of rations was in any case sharply diminished by the subordination of the burgeoning railway system to military uses. Troops were transported by rail as early as 1839 in Germany. By 1859, when France fought Austria in northern Italy, deployment by rail seemed commonplace. In 1866 and 1870 it underlay Prussia’s victories against Austria and France. In the latter year the German rail network, only 469 kilometres in 1840, had increased to 17,215; by 1914 it would total 61,749 kilometres, the greater part of it (56,000 kilometres) under state management. The German government, heavily prompted by the Great General Staff, had early grasped the importance for defensive – and offensive – purposes of controlling the railway system; much of it, particularly in such sectors of low commercial use as Bavaria and East Prussia, had been financed by state-raised loans and laid out at the direction of the General Staff’s railway section.fn2

Railways supplied and transported the soldier of the steam age (at least as far as the railhead; beyond, the old marching and portering imperatives persisted). The technology that built the railways also furnished the weapons with which the soldiers of the new mass armies would inflict mass casualties on each other. The development of such weapons was not deliberate, at least not at the outset; later it may have been. Hiram Maxim, the inventor of the first successful machine-gun, is alleged to have given up experiments in electrical engineering in 1883 on the advice of a fellow American, who said: ‘Hang your electricity! If you want to make your fortune, invent something which will allow those fool Europeans to kill each other more quickly.’ Initially, however, the reason for the appearance of the faster-firing, longer-range and more accurate weapons that equipped the conscript armies between 1850 and 1900 was the particular conjunction of human ingenuity and industrial capability which made their production feasible.

Four factors were significant. The first was the spread of steam power, which supplied the energy to manufacture weapons by industrial process. The second was the development of the appropriate process itself, originally called ‘American’ by reason of its origin in the 1820s in the factories of the Connecticut Valley, which were chronically short of skilled labour. This industrial process resulted in ‘interchangeable parts’, machined by a refinement of the ancient pantographic principle, and achieved an enormous surge of output. The Prussian manufacturer, Dreyse, inventor of the revolutionary ‘needle-gun’ (in which a bolt-operated firing-pin struck a metal-jacketed cartridge), managed to turn out only 10,000 units a year by traditional methods in 1847, despite holding a firm contract from the Prussian government to re-equip its whole army. By 1863, in contrast, the British Enfield armoury, rejigged with automatic milling machines, turned out 100,370 rifles, and in 1866 the French government re-equipped the armoury at Puteaux with ‘interchangeable parts’ machinery capable of producing 300,000 of the new Chassepot rifles each year.

Advances in metal engineering would have been pointless without improvements in the quality of the metal to be worked; that was assured by the development of processes for smelting steel in quantity – notably by the British engineer Bessemer after 1857 (he also was encouraged by a prize offered by Napoleon III). Bessemer’s ‘converter’ marked the third significant advance. With similar furnaces, the German cannon-founder, Alfred Krupp, began in the 1860s to cast steel billets from which perfect cannon-barrels could be machined. His breech-loading field-guns, equivalents on a larger scale of the rifles with which all contemporary infantrymen in advanced armies were now issued, proved the decisive weapons of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1. The fourth ingredient of the firepower revolution was supplied shortly afterwards by European chemists, notably the Swede Alfred Nobel, who developed propellants and bursting-charges which drove projectiles to a greater distance and detonated them with more explosive effect than ever before. The effective range of infantry weapons, for example – a function equally of engineering and propellant developments – increased from a hundred to a thousand yards between 1850 and 1900. When the recuperation of chemical-energy discharges was applied to the mechanism of small arms and artillery in the period 1880-1900, it produced the machine-gun and the quick-firing artillery piece, the ultimate instruments of mass death-dealing at distance.

Surplus and war-making capacity

Long-range, rapid-fire weapons constituted the threat by which all the increments of offensive force assembled by the industrial and demographic revolutions of the nineteenth century were to be negated. There lay an irony. The material triumph of the nineteenth century had been to break out of the cycle of recurrent lean and plenty which had immemorially determined the condition of life even in the richest states, and to create permanent surplus – of food, energy and raw materials (though not of capital, credit or cash). Market fluctuations perpetuated boom and recession in the peaceful life of states. Surplus transformed their war-making capacity. War at any level above the primitive ritual of raid and ambush had always required surplus for its waging. However, accumulated surpluses had rarely been large enough historically to fund wars that culminated in the decisive victory of one side over another; self-funding wars, in which the spoils of conquest sustained the impetus of a victorious campaign, had been rarer still. Extraneous factors – gross disparity in the opposed technologies of war-making or in the dynamism of opposed ideologies, or, as Professor William McNeill has suggested, susceptibility to unfamiliar germ strains transported by an aggressor – had usually explained one society’s triumph over another; and they certainly underlay such military sensations as the Spanish destruction of the Aztec and Inca empires, the Islamic conquests of the seventh century and the American extinction of Red Indian warriordom.

In the warfare of Europe between the Reformation and the French Revolution, waged between states occupying a level plateau of war-making skills, will to war and resistance to common disease, such extraneous factors had played no decisive part; while the surpluses available for offence had been heavily offset by the diversion of funds into means of defence, particularly siege engineering. A great deal of such siege engineering had been dedicated to the destruction of the feudal strongholds from which local magnates had defied central authority once the fashion for castle-building seized the European landholding class in the eleventh century. It was extremely costly; and to the costs had been added those of replacing local with national fortifications in the frontier zones throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Investment in siegecraft, destructive and constructive, had the collateral effect of securing under-investment in civil infrastructures – roads, bridges and canals – which might otherwise have made the passage of armies on offensive campaigns swift and decisive. As late as 1826, for example, while the British road network – much of it in Scotland deliberately built for military purposes after the Jacobite revolt of 1745 – extended to over 21,000 miles, that of France (three times the size) was no greater, while Prussia, which occupied much of the most strategically significant terrain in northern Europe, had a road network of only 3,340 miles, most of it in her Rhineland provinces. Her eastern lands were virtually roadless, as Poland and Russia were to remain – to Napoleon’s and then Hitler’s cost – well into the twentieth century.

The surplus created by the economic miracle in nineteenth-century Europe cancelled out the effects of under-investment in road-building and over-investment in frontier fortification. Mass armies, transported and supplied along the new infrastructure of railways, swamped strategically significant territory as if by tidal force in an era of changed sea levels. In 1866 and 1870 the armies of Prussia overflowed the frontier regions of Austrian Bohemia and French Alsace-Lorraine without hindrance by the costly fortifications that guarded them. Strategic movement in Europe achieved a fluidity equivalent almost to that which had characterised the western campaigns of the American Civil War, fought by mass armies in a landscape free from artificial obstructions of any sort. Regions disputed by Habsburg and Bourbon generals in two hundred years of toothpick campaigning for advantage in each cavity and crevice of each other’s borderlands went under the hammer of steam power in a few weeks of brutal resculpturing. It seemed that a second ‘military revolution’, equivalent to that brought about by gunpowder and mobile cannon at the dawn of the Renaissance and Reformation, stood at hand. Blood, iron and gold – available in quantities more copious than any of which the richest king had ever disposed – promised victories swifter and more total even than those which had been achieved by Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan.

Such victories were promised but could not necessarily be delivered; for the greatest material riches do not avail if the human qualities necessary to animate them are lacking. But here too the nineteenth century had wrought a sea-change. The eighteenth-century soldier had been a poor creature, the liveried servant of his king, sometimes – in Russia and Prussia – an actual serf delivered into the state’s service by his feudal master. Uniform was, indeed, a livery, which reigning monarchs conspicuously did not wear. Those who did bore it as a mark of surrendered rights. It meant that they had succumbed to ‘want or hardship’, the most common impulse to enlistment; that they had changed sides (turncoat prisoners of war formed large contingents in most armies); that they had accepted mercenary service under foreign colours (as tens of thousands of Swiss, Scots, Irish, Slavs and other highlanders and backwoodsmen did throughout the ancien régime); that they had ‘plea-bargained’ out of imprisonment for petty crime or attachment for civic debt; or simply that they had failed to run fast enough from the press-gang. The volunteer was almost the rarest if the best of soldiers. Because so many of his comrades-in-arms were unwilling warriors, the penalties for desertion were draconian and the code of discipline ferocious. The eighteenth-century soldier was flogged for infractions of duty and hanged for indiscipline, both sorts of offence being loosely interpreted.

The nineteenth-century soldier, by contrast, was a man who wanted to be what he was. A willing, often an enthusiastic, soldier, he was usually a conscript but one who accepted his term of (admittedly short) service as a just subtraction from his years of liberty, to be performed with cheerfulness as well as obedience. This was the case at least from mid-century onwards and in the armies of the most advanced states – Prussia first and foremost, but also France and Austria, with the smaller and more backward hurrying to follow suit. Such a change of attitude is difficult to document but real enough nevertheless. Perhaps its most tangible manifestation was the appearance of the regimental souvenir which began to be manufactured in tens of thousands towards the end of the nineteenth century. The souvenir, typically in Germany a china drinking mug, decorated with pictures of regimental life, usually bore the names of the conscript’s fellow platoon members, some couplets of doggerel verse, a salutation to the regiment – ‘Here’s to the 12th Grenadiers’ – and the universal superscription ‘In memory of my service time’. The young soldier who had been sent off garlanded with flowers by his neighbours – a strikingly different farewell from that given to the Russian serf conscript of the eighteenth century, for whom the village priest said a requiem mass – bore back his souvenir when his service time was over to stand in a place of honour in the family home.

This remarkable change of attitude was literally revolutionary. The roots of the change were manifold, but the three most important led directly to the French Revolution and the principal slogans of its ideology: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.

Military service became popular in the nineteenth century first because it was an experience of equality. ‘Cook’s son – Duke’s son – son of a belted Earl,’ Rudyard Kipling wrote of the army Britain sent to fight the Boers in 1900, with some accuracy. Popular enthusiasm for the war did sweep all classes into the ranks as common soldiers; but they were, of course, volunteers. Universal conscription in the European armies took all classes willy-nilly – in Prussia from 1814, in Austria from 1867, in France from 1889 – and bound them to service for two or three years. There were variations in the proportion of annual classes enlisted and fluctuations in the length of service. There were alleviations of obligation for the better educated; typically, for example, high-school graduates served only one year and were then transferred to the reserve as potential officers. Yet the principle of universal obligation that generally held good was also accepted as persisting. Reservists during their early years of discharge returned annually to the colours for retraining; as they grew older they moved to a wartime reserve (Landwehr in Germany, Territorial Army in France); and their final years of able manhood were spent on the list of the Home Guard. Reserve training was borne with good humour, even regarded as a sort of all-male holiday. Freud, a reserve medical officer in the Austrian army, writing to a friend from manoeuvres in 1886, observed that ‘it would be ungrateful not to admit that military life with its inescapable “must” is good for neurasthenia. It all disappeared in the first week.’

Conscription was also relatively egalitarian in its outreach. Jews, like Freud, were as liable as Gentiles and in the Habsburg army automatically became officers if educationally qualified; in the German army, Jews could become reserve officers but were barred by regimental anti-Semitism from holding regular commissions, though Bismarck’s financier, Bleichroder, managed to get his son a regular commission in the household cavalry. The officer who recommended Hitler for his Iron Cross 1st Class was a Jewish reserve officer. This was ‘emancipation’ in its military aspect, and it applied not only to Jews. The universality of conscription swept up every nationality in the Habsburg lands, Poles and Alsace-Lorrainers in Germany, Basques, Bretons and Savoyards in France. All, by being soldiers, were also to be Austrians, Germans or Frenchmen.

Conscription was an instrument not only of equality but also of fraternity. Because it applied to all at the same moment of their lives and in principle treated all in the same way, it forged bonds of brotherhood young Europeans had never before felt. Universal compulsory education, a simultaneous innovation, was currently taking children outside their families and plunging them into a common experience of learning. Conscription took young adults from their locality and plunged them into the experience of growing up – confronting them with the challenge of separation from home, making new friends, dealing with enemies, adjusting to authority, wearing strange clothes, eating unfamiliar food,fn3 shifting for themselves. It was a genuine rite de passage, intellectual, emotional and, not least of all, physical. Nineteenth-century armies, told that they were ‘schools of the nation’, took on many of the characteristics of contemporary schools, not only testing and heightening literacy and numeracy but also teaching swimming, athletics and cross-country sports as well as shooting and the martial arts. Turnvater Jahn, the pioneer of physical education in Germany, was a potent influence on Prussian military training; his ideas were propagated in France through the specialist athletics instructors of the Bataillon de Joinville, while in Italy Captain Caprilli founded a school of military horsemanship which was to transform the art of riding throughout the Western world. The healthy outdoorsmanship of military life, lived round the campfire and under canvas, would eventually develop into the ideals of the German youth movement and the code of the Boy Scouts and so make its way back into social and military life by a convergent route.

The rite de passage of universal conscription was not a liberating experience for all. As Professor William McNeill has pointed out, individuals drafted into the army from a society which was rapidly urbanising and industrialising, marching them away from the plough and the village pump,

found themselves in a simpler society than the one they knew in civil life. The private soldier lost almost all personal responsibility. Ritual and routine took care of nearly every working hour. Simple obedience to the orders that punctuated that routine from time to time, and set activity off in some new direction, offered release from the anxieties inherent in personal decision-making – anxieties that multiplied incontinently in urban society, where rival leaders, rival loyalties and practical alternatives as to how to spend at least part of one’s time competed insistently for attention. Paradoxical as it may sound, escape from freedom was often a real liberation, especially for young men living under very rapidly changing conditions, who had not yet been able to assume fully adult roles.

Even when allowance is made for the force of this percipient observation, however, the ultimate importance of universal conscription in changing attitudes to military service was that it ultimately connected with liberty, in its political if not its personal sense. The old armies had been instruments of oppression of the people by kings; the new armies were to be instruments of the people’s liberation from kings, even if that liberation was to be narrowly institutional in the states which retained monarchy. The two ideas were not mutually contradictory. The French National Convention had decreed in 1791 that ‘the battalion organised in each district shall be united under a banner bearing the inscription: “The French people united against tyranny”.’ That decree encapsulated the idea inherent in the United States Constitution that ‘the right to bear arms’, once made common, was a guarantee of direct freedoms. Two years earlier the revolutionary leader, Dubois-Crance, had articulated the congruent proposition: ‘Each citizen should be a soldier, and each soldier a citizen, or we shall never have a constitution.’

The tension between the principles of winning freedoms by revolutionary assault and extracting them in legal form by performance of military duty was to transfix European political life for much of the nineteenth century. The excess of freedom won by force of arms in France provoked the reaction of Thermidor and diverted the fervour of the extremist sans-culottes into conquest abroad. The victories of the ‘revolutionary’ armies (after 1795 firmly under the control of their officers, many of them, ironically, returned monarchists) then had the effect of provoking their enemies, particularly the Prussian and Austrian kings, into decreeing a variation of the levée-en-masse or general conscription, the original manifestation of the French Revolution in its military form. Such conscription produced popular forces – Landwehr, Landsturm, Freischützen – to oppose the French on their home territories.

Landwehr and Freischützen became an embarrassment as soon as their work was done. With Napoleon safely on St Helena, Prussia and Austria consigned these popular forces, with their liberal-minded bourgeois officers, to the status of reserve contingents, and intended never to call on their services again. Nevertheless they survived until 1848, ‘year of revolutions’, when their members actively participated in the street battles for constitutional rights in Vienna and Berlin – where the uprising was put down by the Prussian Guard, the ultimate bastion of traditional authority. They had meanwhile been replicated in France, whose National Guard would keep alive the ‘liberal’ principle in military life under the Second Empire and, after the withdrawal of the Prussians from Paris in 1871, rise against the regular army of the conservative Third Republic in a bloody Commune which would cost the lives of 20,000 of its members.

‘No conscription without representation’

The struggle of these citizen forces with the armies of reaction, though ending in physical defeat, nevertheless indirectly exerted the pressure which extracted constitutional and electoral rights from the conservative European regimes. The demand for such rights was in the air; and the impôt du sang – ‘blood tax’, as conscription laws were called in France – could not be levied if constitutional rights continued to be refused, particularly when neighbour states were enlarging their armies and reserves through the process of conscription. Prussia, the military pace-setter, granted a constitution in 1849, as a direct result of the fright it was caused by armed revolutionaries the previous year. By 1880 both France and the German Empire had introduced universal male suffrage, and France would institute a common three-year term of service as a quid pro quo in 1882. Austria extended the vote to all males in 1907; even Russia, most autocratic of states and most exigent in its conscription laws, which imposed a term of four years, had created a representative assembly in 1905, following the defeat of its army by the Japanese in Manchuria and the subsequent revolution of that year.

‘No conscription without representation’ had, in short, become an unspoken slogan of European politics in the half-century before the First World War; since conscription is indeed a tax, on the individual’s time if not money, it exactly echoed the American colonists’ challenge to George III in 1776. Paradoxically, in the states where votes were granted to all, or most, free men but where military service was still restricted to those fettered by ‘want or hardship’ – the United States and Britain – a strange passion for volunteer soldiering seized their citizenry during the great era of military expansion through conscription in nineteenth-century Europe. The opening stages of the American Civil War could not have been fought without the prior existence of a network of entirely amateur regiments, with names like the Liberty Rifles of New Jersey, the Mechanic Phalanx of Massachusetts, the Republican Blues of Savannah, Georgia, and the Palmetto Guard of Charleston, South Carolina. In 1859 a nationwide war scare caused by French naval expansion had brought into being a similar though much larger network in Britain. Tennyson’s stirring verses, Form, Riflemen, Form, had helped to call 200,000 civilians into amateur military service. This was a serious embarrassment to the government, which could not stop them designing and buying their own uniforms but was reluctant to see or help them arm.

They did so none the less; and the government, which like all others in Europe since the establishment of public order at the beginning of the eighteenth century had energetically carried out the disarmament of its population, was eventually obliged to issue them with rifles from the state arsenals. The issue of the modern rifle, rather than the obsolete musket, was crucially significant. The musket, like the uniform livery of the dynastic armies that used it, was a mark of servitude. So short was its range that its effect could be harnessed to battle-winning purposes only by massing the musketeers in dense rank, and keeping them ‘closed up’ at pike point. The rifle, by contrast, was a weapon of individual skill. It could kill a common soldier, without much discrimination by its user, at 500 yards; in the hands of a marksman it could kill a general at 1000 yards. Hence the Paris Communards were convinced, as Thomas Carlyle put it, that ‘the rifle made all men tall’. A rifleman was as good as any man. The British Rifle Volunteers, in token of the status their weapons gave them, chose to dress not in the tight scarlet of the soldiers of the line, enlisted from ‘want and hardship’, but in the loose tweed shooting-suits of country gentlemen; to that garb some added ‘Garibaldi’ shirts or the ‘wideawake’ hats of the 1848 revolutionaries. In different varieties of cut and colour – field-grey or khaki – this grousemoor or deerstalker garb would come to clothe all the armies of Europe (with the exception of the French) by 1914, just as the long-range, high-velocity rifle would arm them. No badge of military proficiency would be worn with more ostentation than the marksman’s; and those units which had carried the rifle earliest – designated as Schützen in Germany, Jäger in Austria, chasseurs in France, greenjackets in Britain – would arrogate to themselves a particular esprit de corps as soldiers of modernity.

In truth, however, all the soldiers who marched to war in 1914 formed a badge of the modernity of the states to which they belonged. They were fit, strong, faultlessly clothed and equipped, armed with weapons of unparalleled lethality, and inspired by the belief that they were free men who, in free activity on the battlefield, would win prompt and decisive victories. Above all they were numerous. No society on earth had ever proportionately put forth soldiers in such numbers as Europe did in August 1914. The intelligence section of the German Great General Staff had evolved a rule of thumb that every million of a nation’s population could support two divisions of soldiers, or some 30,000 men. The rule of thumb was narrowly borne out on mobilisation: France, with 40 million population, mobilised 75 infantry divisions (and 10 of cavalry); Germany, with 57 million, 87 divisions (and 11 of cavalry); Austria-Hungary, with 46 million, 49 divisions (and 11 of cavalry); and Russia, with 100 million, 114 divisions (and 36 of cavalry). Since each was formed from a particular locality – the German 9th and 10th Divisions, for example, from Lower Silesia, the French 19th and 20th from the Pas de Calais, the Austrian 3rd and 5th from the vicinity of Linz (Hitler’s home town), the Russian 1st, 2nd and 3rd from the Baltic states – their departure denuded their home districts of their young manhood overnight. In the first fortnight of August 1914 some 20 million Europeans, nearly 10 per cent of the populations of the combatant states, donned military drab and shouldered rifles to take the train to war. All had been told and most believed that they would be back ‘before the leaves fell’.

It would be four years and five autumns before the survivors returned, leaving on the battlefields some 10 million dead. The vast crop of fit and strong young men which formed the fruit of nineteenth-century Europe’s economic miracle had been consumed by the forces which gave them life and health. The original divisions which had mobilised in 1914 had ‘turned over’ their personnel at least twice and in some cases three times. War-raised divisions had suffered comparable losses, for the conscription machine drove on throughout the war’s course, not only consuming new classes as each came annually of military age but also spreading its jaws to swallow the older, younger and less fit whom it would have rejected in peacetime. Ten million Frenchmen passed through the military machine between 1914 and 1918; out of each nine enlisted, four became casualties. German fatal casualties exceeded 3 million, Austrian a million, British a million, those of Italy, which entered the war only in May 1915 and fought on the narrowest of fronts, over 600,000; the dead of the Russian army, whose collapse in 1917 permitted the Bolsheviks to seize power, have never accurately been counted. The graves of the Russian dead, and those of the Germans and Austrians who opposed them, were scattered from the Carpathians to the Baltic; those of the French, British, Belgians and Germans who fell on the Western Front were concentrated in a narrow belt of frontier territory forming cemeteries which have become major and permanent landmarks in that countryside. Those constructed by the British – for which Edwin Lutyens, the great neo-classicist, designed the architecture and Rudyard Kipling, himself a bereaved Great War parent, wrote the funerary inscriptions, ‘Their name liveth for evermore’ and, on the tombs of the unidentified dead, ‘A soldier of the Great War, known unto God’ – are places of heartrending beauty.

‘Cities of the dead’ they have been called, though ‘gardens of the dead’ is more apt; they are supreme achievements of that romantic landscape art which is one of England’s donations to world culture. But they were filled from zones which in their time were cities of the living, foci of activity, emotional and intellectual as well as physical, more intense than any Europe had known since the French Revolution. ‘The front cannot but attract us,’ the French Jesuit philosopher, Teilhard de Chardin, had written, ‘because it is in one way the extreme boundary between what you are obviously aware of and what is still in the process of formation. Not only do you see these things that you experience nowhere else but you also see emerge from within yourself an underlying stream of clarity, energy and freedom that is to be found hardly anywhere else in ordinary life.’ Teilhard de Chardin’s rhetoric harks back directly to that of the barricades, those of 1871, 1848, ultimately of 1789; and with good reason. The trenches of the Western Front were indeed barricades. Alan Seeger, a poet and victim of the trenches, called them ‘disputed barricades’ – across which the emancipated youth of Europe levelled their rifles, symbols of their status as free citizens, in defence of the values of liberty, equality, fraternity. The nineteenth century had given these values to all, but nationalism had persuaded each citizen that they inhered meaningfully only in the state to which he belonged. Revolution, its fathers had quite genuinely believed, would be a gift freely given to all, a gift whose effect would be to foster a fraternity of nations as well as of people. It had, none the less, never been successfully internationalised. Even at its dawn it had manifested itself as the dynamic of a single nationality alone; when its values came to be more widely diffused, their transmission, by a bizarre perversion, succeeded only in reinforcing the amour-propre of each nation among which they rooted. The French Revolution persuaded the French – as it still does – that they were unique in their devotion to equality; its influence reinforced the Germans’ commitment to fraternity; its proclamation of liberty convinced the British that they already possessed it more fully than latecomer claimants to their freeborn rights ever could.

The fruits of victory

The states to which the First World War brought both victory and its fruits – France and Britain foremost – were able to adjust the sense of suffering they had undergone to their belief in the higher values that had animated their war-making without grave damage to their national psyches. For each of them, in a real but unexpressed material dimension, the First World War had been worth the sacrifice. Despite the human and, in the case of France, material cost, the war had re-energised and expanded their home economies, even if much overseas investment had been liquidated to purchase raw materials and finished goods in the process; more important, it had greatly expanded their overseas possessions. Britain and France, in that order, remained in 1914 the most important of the world’s imperial powers (a major factor in motivating Germany to attack them); by 1920, after the distribution of the defeated powers’ possessions under League of Nations mandate, their empires had become larger still. France, already dominant in North and West Africa, added Syria and Lebanon to its Mediterranean holdings. Britain, head of the largest imperial association the world had ever seen, extended it by the addition to its East African colonies of German Tanganyika, thus making the dream of an Africa British ‘from Cairo to the Cape’ a reality; at the same time it acquired the mandates for Palestine and Iraq, ex-Turkish territories, and so established its power over a ‘fertile crescent’ running from Egypt to the head of the Persian Gulf.

Crumbs from the table of the German and Turkish empires fell elsewhere; South-West Africa and Papua to South Africa and Australia, Rhodes to Italy, Germany’s Pacific islands to Japan – a sop which only time would reveal as ill considered. Italy and Japan believed they deserved more, particularly since the greater allies picked up crumbs too. Their sense of being skimped would feed dangerous rancours in the years to come. But the rancour of these unfavoured victors was as nothing compared to that of the vanquished. Both Austria and Turkey, ancient contestants for mastery in Europe’s middle lands, would develop the resignation to adapt to reduced circumstances. Germany would not. Its sense of humiliation bit deep. Not only had it lost the trappings of an embryo colonial power as well as the marches of its historic advance into central Europe in West Prussia and Silesia. It had also lost command of a strategic zone so extensive and central that as late as July 1918 its possession had promised victory, and thereby control of a new empire in the European heartland.

On 13 July 1918, the eve of the Second Battle of the Marne, German armies occupied the whole of western Russia up to a line which touched the Baltic outside Petrograd and the Black Sea at Rostov-on-Don, enclosed Kiev, capital of the Ukraine and historic centre of Russian civilisation, and cut off from the rest of the country one-third of Russia’s population, one-third of its agricultural land and more than one-half of its industry. The line, moreover, was one not of conquest but of annexation, secured by an international treaty signed at Brest-Litovsk in March. German expeditionary forces operated as far east as Georgia in Transcaucasia and as far south as the Bulgarian frontier with Greece and the plain of the Po in Italy. Through her Austrian and Bulgarian satellites Germany controlled the whole of the Balkans and, by her alliance with Turkey, extended her power as far away as northern Arabia and northern Persia. In Scandinavia, Sweden remained a friendly neutral, while Germany was helping Finland to gain its independence from the Bolsheviks – as Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were also shortly to do. In distant south-east Africa a German colonial army kept in play an Allied army ten times its size. And in the west, on the war’s critical front, the German armies stood within fifty miles of Paris. In five great offensives, begun the previous March, the German high command had regained all the territory contested with France since the First Battle of the Marne fought four years earlier. A sixth offensive promised to carry its spearheads to the French capital and win the war.

Five months later the war had indeed been won, but by the French, British and Americans, not by Germany. Her soldiers, beaten back to the Belgian frontier by the Allied counter-offensives of July, August and September, had learned in November of the armistice their leaders had accepted, had marched back across the Rhine to home territory and had there demobilised themselves. Within days of their return, the largest army in the world, still numbering over 200 divisions, had returned its rifles and steel helmets to store and dispersed homeward. Bavarians, Saxons, Hessians, Hanoverians, Prussians, even the immortals of the Imperial Guard, decided overnight, in defiance of every imperative by which the German Empire and the European military system had been built over the preceding fifty years, to stop their ears to superior orders and resume civilian life. Cities, towns and villages which since 1914 had been empty of young men suddenly repossessed them in cohorts; but the Berlin government, which had counted unreflectively on the availability of boundless military force for a hundred years, disposed of none whatsoever.

The Freikorps phenomenon

States cannot survive in a military vacuum; without armed forces a state does not exist. This truth was soon discovered by the socialists who came to power after the fall of the Kaiser, committed though they were to popular instead of autocratic government. Confronted by armed communist insurrection and Russian Bolshevik intervention – in Bavaria, in the Baltic and North Sea ports, in Berlin itself – the German Social Democratic government took military help wherever they could find it. It was not a time to be choosy and the choice was not delicate. Friedrich Ebert, Chancellor of the new republic and a lifelong socialist, announced, ‘I hate the Social Revolution like sin!’; but he can scarcely have liked the soldiers whom the crisis threw his way. ‘War had taken hold of them’, Ernst von Salomon wrote of the young republic’s first protectors, ‘and would never let them go. They would never really belong to their homes again.’ The men of whom he spoke – and he was one of them – were a type thrown up by any great military convulsion. They had congregated at Cape Taenarum in the Peloponnese in the fifth century BC after the wars of the Greek city-states – landless men looking for mercenary hire. Germany had been full of them during the Thirty Years War, as had the whole of Europe after the fall of Napoleon, when many had made a living by going to fight for the Greeks in the war of independence against the Turks. In November and December 1918 they called themselves Frontkämpfer – ‘front fighters’, men who had learned in the trenches a way of life from which the onset of peace could not wean them. General Ludwig von Maercker, organiser of the first of the republic’s Freikorps, spoke of forming ‘a vast militia of bourgeoisie and peasants, grouped around the flag for the re-establishment of order’. His vision harked back to a pre-industrial military system in which artisans and farmers united to repress anarchy and sedition. In truth no such system had ever existed. The Freikorps were a manifestation of a much more modern principle – the post-1789 belief that a political being was a citizen armed with a rifle which he was trained to use in defence of the nationality to which he belonged and the ideology that nationality embodied.

It was significant that Maercker’s original Freikorps, the Volunteer Territorial Rifle Corps (das Freiwillige Landesjägerkorps), included a tier of ‘trusted men’ (Vertrauensleute) intermediate between officers and rank-and-file, and that its disciplinary code stipulated that ‘the leader of a volunteer corps must never inflict a punishment capable of touching a man’s honour’. The Landesjägerkorps, in short, embodied the idea that statehood was ultimately military in origin, that citizenship was validated by military service, that service should be freely given and that the serviceman’s duty of obedience should always be mitigated by the honour owed to him as a warrior. Here was the ultimate realisation of the political philosophy proclaimed by the fathers of revolution in France 130 years earlier.

Maercker’s original Freikorps was rapidly replicated all over the new German republic; in addition, Freikorps sprang up in the regions over which Deutschtum (‘Germanness’) had historic claims to dominate, in the borderlands disputed with the new state of Poland, in the Baltic lands winning their independence from Russia and in the German-speaking remnants of the Habsburg Empire. The titles adopted by such Freikorps – the word was itself a direct reference to the popular units raised in Prussia against Napoleon in 1813-14 – were indicative of their ethos: the German Rifle Division, the Territorial Rifle Corps, the Border Rifle Brigade, the Guard-Cavalry Rifle Division, the Yorck von Wartenburg Volunteer Rifle Corps. There were many others, and some would go to form brigades, regiments or battalions of the ‘hundred thousand men’ army that Versailles would eventually allow the German republic. Others would naturally disband but take on clandestine existence as the political militias of the parties of the extreme right in Weimar Germany; their defeated left-wing equivalents would survive as the camouflaged street-fighting units of the Red Front.

The Freikorps phenomenon was not confined to the German lands alone. Wherever peoples were divided by ideology, as they were in Finland and in Hungary, to say nothing of Russia in the era of Civil War, it appeared, and often hydra-headed. The post-war world was awash with rifles, with rootless and rancorous men and with freebooting officers who knew how to lead them; but it was in Italy that it took its most purposive form. Italy seethed with rancours, diplomatic and domestic. It had benefited little by its blood sacrifice; the acquisition of Trieste, the South Tyrol and the Dodecanese islands was little recompense for 600,000 dead. The survivors benefited from victory not at all. The costs of the war drove post-war Italy into an economic crisis with which the traditional parties, liberal and religious alike, were unable to deal. The only leader to promise salvation was the Freikorps-type Benito Mussolini, who advocated military-style solutions to the country’s problems. His Fascio di Combattimento drew its activists from ex-servicemen, among whom former arditi (stormtroopers) were foremost. Their programme, proclaimed on the eve of the ‘March on Rome’ which delivered the government to the Fascists in October 1922, was ‘to hand over to the King and Army a renewed Italy’.

The idea of the army as a social model – centrist, hierarchical and supremely nationalist – was to energise politics over a wide area of Europe throughout the post-war years. It took no root in the great victor nations, France and Britain, nor in the settled bourgeois democracies of northern Europe and Scandinavia. But it proved deeply attractive in the defeated nations, in the successor states of the dismembered empires and in the underdeveloped countries on the European fringe, particularly Portugal and Spain. There the strains of adaptation to democracy or self-government and to the unfamiliar market forces of a suddenly unstable international economy seemed best solved by calling a halt to competition between classes, regions and minorities and consigning authority to a militaristic and often uniformed political high command. The polarisation of politics between the military and political principles would even manifest itself in Bolshevik Russia, where much of the victorious revolutionaries’ bureaucratic energies after the defeat of the Whites in 1920 would be devoted to emasculating the Red Army as an alternative political force.

Uniforms and titles of rank were pushed to the margin of political life in Lenin’s and then Stalin’s Russia. In Italy they dominated the centre; in Austria and Germany they hovered in the wings, poised to occupy the stage at the moment the drama of events gave them their cue. Elsewhere – in Hungary, in Poland, in Portugal, in Spain – career colonels and generals took over and exercised power without the hesitations that their equivalents in states of liberal tradition felt they owed to the conventions of representative rule. A strange transvaluation of the ideal of 1789 took possession of the public life of these countries. Military service was seen no longer as the token by which the individual validated his citizenship but as the form in which the citizen tendered his duty to the state and took part in its functions. ‘Every citizen a soldier and every soldier a citizen’ had borne a creative and even beneficent meaning in a society like that of France before the Revolution, where the two states of being were historically and sharply separate. In societies where they had become undifferentiated, soldierly obedience all too easily supplanted civic rights in the relationship between masses and government. So it came to be in Italy after 1922; so it would be, comprehensively and fatally, in Germany after 1933.

No European of his time had more potently imbibed the soldierly ethic than Adolf Hitler. As a subject of the Habsburg Empire, he had evaded conscription into its army because that entailed service with the non-Germans – Slavs and Jews – whom he despised. August 1914 offered him the chance to enlist as a volunteer in a unit of the German army and he eagerly seized it. He quickly proved himself a good soldier and served bravely throughout the war, an event that produced in him ‘a stupendous impression – the greatest of all experiences. For that individual interest – the interest of one’s own ego – could be subordinated to the common interest – that the great heroic struggle of our people demonstrated in overwhelming fashion.’ The defeat of November 1918 outraged him as intensely as any of those who joined a Freikorps – as he might himself have done. Instead he found a position which better suited his talents and exactly encapsulated that interpenetration of political by military principles of which he would eventually make himself the supreme practitioner. In the spring of 1919 he was appointed a Bildungsoffizier in the Weimar Republic’s VII District Command, with the task of instructing soldiers of the new army in their duty of obedience to the state. It was a propagandist’s job, created by the army for the purpose of inoculating the men against contagion by socialist, pacifist or democratic ideas. Bildung is a word of manifold meanings ranging from ‘formation’ through ‘education’ to ‘culture’ and ‘civilisation’. The self-taught and dreamily romantic Hitler would have been aware of all of them and conscious of his responsibility not merely to warn against dangerous influences but also to form minds and attitudes. It can have surprised him not at all that the army command in Munich simultaneously encouraged him to join an embryo nationalist movement, the German Workers’ Party, nor that his superior, Captain Ernst Röhm, not only fed it with members drawn from the Freikorps but also joined it himself; so too did other veterans of Hitler’s wartime regiment, Lieutenant Rudolf Hess and Sergeant-Major Max Amann. Röhm quickly organised the toughest ex-soldiers and Freikorps men into a party street-fighting force, the Sturmabteilung (SA). By 1920 the essential elements of the Nazi Party were in place.

Like its communist antithesis, the Red Front, and its Italian equivalent, the Fascio di Combattimento, the Nazi Party was military in ethos, organisation and appearance from the outset. It chose brown as its uniform colour, from that of the victorious British army, whose Sam Browne belt it also adopted; from the elite mountain rifle regiments it borrowed the peaked ski-cap; and its members wore knee-length boots, an age-old symbol of the rough-riding warrior. On parade it formed ranks behind legionary banners; on the march it stepped out to the beat of the drum. Only the absence of rifles differentiated it from an army proper; but, in Hitler’s vision, political victory would bring it weapons also. The triumph of the National Socialist revolution would abolish the distinction between party and army, citizen and soldier, and subordinate every German and everything in Germany – parliament, bureaucracy, courts, schools, business, industry, trades union, even churches – to the Führerprinzip, the principle of military leadership.

fn1It was not only continentals who opposed barrack building. Field Marshal Wade, the eighteenth-century British general, put the British attitude thus: ‘the people of this Kingdom have been taught to associate the idea of Barracks and Slavery so closely that, like darkness and the Devil, though there be no manner of connection between them, yet they cannot separate them’.

fn2It is evidence of the military importance the German state and army attached to the free use of the railways that the personnel of the Reichsbahn were not allowed to unionise. Understandably so; the word ‘sabotage’ derives from the Belgian railwaymen’s practice of unseating rails from their shoes (sabots) during the great strike of 1905.

fn3Often very much better in the army than at home. In the 1860s the French national intake was 1.2 kilograms, the army intake 1.4. The contemporary Flemish conscripts’ refrain, reflecting the hardship of peasant life, ran: ‘Every day in the army meat and soup without working.’

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