Magazine article The Spectator

The Secret of Germany's Failure as a Military Power

Magazine article The Spectator

The Secret of Germany's Failure as a Military Power

Article excerpt

Last week, discussing the subject of skilfully commercial book titles, I mentioned that I had recently discovered Why the Germans Lose at War by Kenneth Macksey (Greenhill Books, 1996). I said I would report here when I had read it. The matter seemed to arouse interest. `Well, why do they?' friends asked. I met no one uninterested in the answer.

On the face of it, this is odd. The Germans, in under 30 years, lost the two greatest wars in history. Logically, the rest of us should conclude that the Germans cannot be much good at war. Yet plenty of us think they are. Mr Macksey's book is subtitled `The Myth of German Military Superiority', so there is a myth of the military superiority of the people who lost those two vast wars.

The other day, I went into a military bookshop in London and asked for the recent biography of Liddell Hart. The youth behind the counter replied, `Little who?' In answer to his further question, `Who was he, what did he do?', I found myself rather pompously replying that Liddell Hart was, I suppose, with a man called Fuller, one of the two best-known military writers of the century in the English-speaking world, and perhaps in the world as a whole. The youth had never heard of either of them, but piled high around him were illustrated books by, and about, German generals and air bases, and illustrated guides to German insignia, weapons, tanks and uniforms.

Yet they lost both. Lost the second as comprehensively as it is possible to lose anything. But the German High Command of these two world wars, especially of the second, have had a posthumous victory. They have convinced the world that they know best how to wage war. The more I think about that posthumous victory, the more it seems to me that their true genius was not Hitler, or any general, but the man who realised the real weapon of the 20th century: public relations, or the media. Goebbels made Europe terrified of Germany. All that goose-stepping; massed ranks at Nuremberg rallies; columns of tanks in Poland and France supported by dive-bombers. With all that, Goebbels was the first and most lethal spin doctor.

I must make clear that this idea that those early German triumphs were as much to do with PR as with prowess on the battlefield is my own unscholarly suspicion, and not Mr Macksey's theory. He, as a scholar, must be more measured than me, a journalist. But, before I try to summarise his scholarship, I must mention one of the other reasons why I think so many people want to believe in German military superiority, at least in German aggressiveness. Eurosceptics propagate the myth in order to depict Germany as still wanting to dominate Europe, but this time dominating by means of the European Union from whose restraints Germany will one day break free to try to dominate Europe on her own. Lady Thatcher sometimes gives the impression that this is what she believes, or wants us to believe. But some Europhiles unwittingly encourage this idea by depicting the European Union as the only way of tying Germany down and preventing it from dominating Europe.

Turning to Mr Macksey's thesis, the Germans' tendency to start wars goes back at least to the 12th century. The German frontiers were flat on all sides. Scandinavians pressed on them from the north, French from the west, Slavs from the east, Turks from the south. Their best defence was sudden attack. We in our island, by then invulnerable to invasion, cannot blame them. But Mr Macksey sees in the German military character a fatal flaw: they did not know when to stop. As early as 1410, having withstood various eastern pagans, they `arrogantly overstepped the mark, this time by threatening the Christianised Poles and Lithuanians'. …

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