'The Nation in Arms': Germany and France, 1789-1939

By Bartov, Omer | History Today, September 1994 | Go to article overview

'The Nation in Arms': Germany and France, 1789-1939


Bartov, Omer, History Today


The long history of Franco-German relations, characterised by a perpetual tension between anxiety and admiration, animosity and emulation, insight and misconception, richly illustrates the degree to which mutual influences between European societies have shaped their development throughout the modern era. This is the case in the political just as much as in the cultural sphere. When speaking of the relationship between the evolving concept of national identity and the military, a comparison between France and Germany is highly instructive, for the interplay between army, regime, and society in these two neighbouring countries, and their influence upon each other during a century-and-a-half of conflict, has clearly played a major role in forging their sense of nationhood. Indeed, one may say that at a time when these two powers were at the height of their influence, their respective solutions to the problems arising from civil-military relations had a major impact not only on the European continent, but also on much of the rest of the world, and have left a deep mark on our understanding of the complex issues involved in the creation of the modern nation state.

As early as the mid-seventeenth century the Great Elector of Brandenburg began to employ the army he had created as an important means of state-building. His eighteenth-century successors managed to win for their Prussian kingdom the status of a major European power, in spite of its meagre resources and sparse population, largely thanks to a unique organisation of compulsory conscription based on the so-called 'canton system'. Unlike its larger neighbours, who relied on professional soldiers, Prussia recruited its peasants and could thereby field relatively large armies at a much smaller cost. Nevertheless, though efficient in terms of resource exploitation, this system was held together by a combination of brutal discipline and a heavy reliance on the traditional feudal hierarchy. Hence, apart from in times of emergency, the educated middle class was strictly kept out of the army, and the peasant-soldiers were led by Junker officers.

Patriotic motivation had no role in this military organisation. Indeed, both by social composition and mentality this army was not much different from its medieval forerunners, and the relationship between subservient peasants and autocratic landowners was simply duplicated within the ranks of the military. Moreover, the fact that soldiers spent much of the time working the land rather than training or fighting, meant that the army became an integral part of Prussian society.

It was the French Revolution's levee en masse which not only introduced universal conscription, but also replaced the loyalty of the subject to the aristocratic landowners and king with the responsibility of every citizen to the patrie. Hence, while all those eligible for military duty were to fight at the front, the rest of the population was to be mobilised both economically and morally in service of the national cause. Conversely, the end of the ancien regime was symbolised by the rise of the non-aristocratic officer, for now every simple soldier supposedly carried the marshal's baton in his knapsack. If in 1790 the vast majority of the officers were nobles, by 1794 they had almost completely vanished from the officer corps.

Thus an army was formed which both in numbers and motivation, in social composition and self-perception, was inherently different from anything seen hitherto in Europe. In other words, while the revolutionary army reflected the profound changes taking place in French society as a whole, it in turn constituted a crucial factor in the creation of a new concept of national identity. The individual serving in the nation armee fought for France, rather than for the king of the French. The new citizens fought for their perceived interests, but were also charged with duties towards that amorphous entity, the nation, which they were called upon to serve at all cost. …

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