Hans Delbruck and Modern Military History

By Bucholz, Arden | The Historian, Spring 1993 | Go to article overview

Hans Delbruck and Modern Military History


Bucholz, Arden, The Historian


MILITARY HISTORY has often been written by what anthropologists call participant-observers--career soldiers or civilians who fought in wars. After Carl von Clausewitz and Henri Jomini one thinks of Helmuth von Moltke the elder, Theodore von Bernhardi, Max Jahns, Ulysses S. Grant, Ardant du Picq, Ferdinand Foch, Jean Colin, B.H. Liddell Hart, J.F.C. Fuller, Cyril Falls, Dwight Eisenhower, and Nguyen Giap. Wars have always been prominent features of human life, crises that humans get themselves into and then, if they survive, memorialize. Even for those who do not experience it themselves but send others to participate, war's climactic quality speaks to its uniqueness in human life.

Modern military history results from two additional factors undergirding human experience since the eighteenth century: the industrialization of warfare and the increasing division of labor that created modem professional historians. Its genesis and development, beginning slowly after the Napoleonic wars, encompasses the national wars of the mid nineteenth century--Italian, Prussian, and American--and the imperial wars around the turn of the century--Spanish-American, Boer, and Russo-Japanese. Modern military history reached full definition between and following the two world wars of this century. Like the wars, military history and historians were influenced by one other aspect of modernity, the burgeoning knowledge industry in both the university and the military Division of labor by knowledge and occupational professionalization dominated late nineteenth- and twentieth-century institutions.

Hans Delbruck (1848-1929) is an excellent example of a military historian who was shaped by the military events taking place around him and of which he was at times a part. His adult life was bordered by two of the most horrible dashes of industrialized war. He saw combat at Gravelotte and St. Privat in 1870. In 1914, at age 66, his country, Germany, pitched itself into World War I. By the end of the war, Delbruck had lost both a son and a way of life. In between these wars he was an academic historian at Berlin University during its greatest period of growth and he witnessed the radical industrialization of the German Empire.

Unlike his colleague Max Weber, whose participation in the invention and definition of sociology during these years despite crippling personal costs went along smoothly without institutional or bureaucratic opposition, Delbruck confronted strong resistance in doing the same for military history. A decade after 1871 he began a career at Berlin that, by 1914, resulted m half a dozen books and hundreds of essays and reviews defining military history as a separate and distinct discipline within German higher education. Neither the university nor the military approved of his efforts. Within the academy the dominant Prussian school of history argued that Delbruck's specialization lacked validity as a Geisteswissenschaft (humanistic discipline)--military affairs were best left to those who knew them, professional soldiers. Within the general staff, the Schlieffen school of historical strategy agreed. They believed Delbruck, a civilian outsider, lacked experiential legitimacy and could not truly understand armies and war. Both schools were rooted in German idealism and inspired by German nationalism. Although this battle lasted for a generation, defining and legitimizing a new academic speciality, Delbruck never really won. His tenure in 1897 was in world, not military, history. When he retired from the Berlin faculty in 1921 his request for the creation of a chair in military history was rejected.

In fact, only during World War I and thereafter did Delbruck's historical consciousness reach its final conclusions. He achieved this not in academic or technical military history, but in public history that was defined and argued over in one of the most dangerous political arenas for the life of the mind in twentieth-century Europe--the Weinar Republic. …

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