'An Army with a State, Not a State with an Army': F.G. Stapleton Examines the Role Played by the Armed Forces in the Government of the Second Reich

By Stapleton, F. G. | History Review, September 2003 | Go to article overview

'An Army with a State, Not a State with an Army': F.G. Stapleton Examines the Role Played by the Armed Forces in the Government of the Second Reich


Stapleton, F. G., History Review


The Debate

In 1906 a cause celebre hit the front pages of the Kaiserreich. A 57 year-old ex-convict shoemaker from Berlin was arrested for impersonating an officer of the Imperial army. Wilhelm Voight had stolen a captain's uniform of a Prussian cavalry regiment. He then commandeered two squads of soldiers from Berlin's Neue Wache barracks, boarded a train and headed for the sleepy town of Kopenick. There, he took over the Rathaus and arrested the mayor (a lieutenant in the state reserve) and several officials on the trumped charges of 'dereliction of duty'. In the midst of this cultivated chaos he demanded the keys to the safe. He wanted access to an imperial passport so that he could abscond from the state but only found 4,000 marks. Stoically resigned, he returned to Berlin, sent the sergeant major back to the barracks with the prisoners and retired to a cafe on the Unter den Linden. He went into the toilet as an officer and came out a civilian on the run. At his trial, his Defence acknowledged that this crime was only made possible due to the irrational adulation of the army within the cultural consciousness the Second Reich.

The French and British press predictably cited this as yet another example of the follies and dangers of a regime whose Kaiser promoted so zealously within Germany's governmental institutions the 'teutonic martial myth'. It had the dual disadvantage of making imperial Germany appear simultaneously a comic state domestically whilst also remaining a culture which promoted a blind civilian subservience to the military machine. But though patronising this farcical German dachshund, the Anglo-French were also acutely aware of its ability to bite them when they were not looking. This remained the overriding perception of the Kaiserreich in the years preceding the outbreak of World War One.

Nevertheless Nicholas Stugardt has commented that

   Imperial Germany was a
   country where hundreds of
   thousands signed up for
   military associations and
   hundreds of thousands
   demonstrated for peace. Civil
   society was sophisticated,
   pluralist and deeply divided.

He outrightly rejects the notion that a thread of militarist continuity stretches out across German history from 'Frederician absolutism to Nazism'. 19th-century German history was never merely a forged militarist product carried along on some preordained martial conveyor belt. It could always have taken a different route. But those who reject the Sonderweg Theory (of Germany's 'separate path') remain perplexed when attempting to clarify the peculiarities governing the working relationship between army and state during the Kaiserreich.

The House that Bismarck Built

The battles of Jena and Auerstadt effectively destroyed much of Frederick the Great's Prussia and his old Junker army. Scharnhorst, who did more than anyone else to reconstruct the Prussian army that would help subdue Napoleon at Leipzig in 1813 and Waterloo in 1815, had risen through the ranks due to his genius in the field. This son of a Hanoverian peasant urged King Frederick William III (1797-1840) to open up the officer class permanently to talented non-aristocrats. But the complacency of the restored regime in the post-Napoleonic period left the army as socially stratified as it had been in the 18th century. A quota survey of 1863 proved that the higher ranks were still dominated by Junker bloodlines: 86 per cent of colonels and generals and 90 per cent of the guards, cavalry and King's personal regiments were from landowning families. Now while Nicholas Stugardt is correct to highlight the emergence of German Democratic liberalism in the 1840s, 50s and 60s, its demands for a smaller and democratically controlled armed forces were outmanoeuvred by Otto von Bismarck amidst the constitutional crisis of 1859-62. The Prussian Fortschrittspartei (Progress Party) may have had 136 seats in the Landtag and a determination to preserve the Landwehr as a non-professional militia, but Bismarck and von Roon exploited the natural conservatism of the new king, Wilhelm I, and adjourned the Landtag sitting in October 1862. …

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