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Prussia's Emergence as a Military Power

After the decline of the Holy Roman Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia eventually emerged as the dominant power in central Europe (see The Age of Enlightened Absolutism, 1648-1789, ch. 1). Prussia had been colonized and Germanized during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries by the Knights of the Teutonic Order, a military order of German monks that pushed back or overran the Slavs in the area. The knights were crushed by the Poles and Lithuanians in 1410 at the Battle of Tannenberg, but in the next century the Hohenzollern Dynasty that ruled Brandenburg and made Berlin its residence was able to win control over West Prussia, Silesia, Pomerania, and eventually much of the Rhineland and Westphalia.

The German military heritage was epitomized by a succession of Prussian rulers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The first of these was the Great Elector, Frederick William (r. 1640-88), who recognized that a standing army with an elite officer corps was the key to the development of a powerful state in his remote part of the empire. His grandson, Frederick William I (r. 1713-40), more than doubled the size of his professional army to 90,000 and added a trained reserve of conscripted peasants, forming one of the most modern and efficient fighting units in eighteenth-century Europe. Heavy taxes supported the army, which consumed 80 percent of state revenues even in peacetime. The next Prussian king, Frederick II (r. 1740-86), known to posterity as Frederick the Great, raised the strength of the army to 150,000 and launched a series of wars between 1740 and 1763, wresting control of the province of Silesia from Habsburg Austria. Prussia had become one of the most powerful continental states and a contender with the Habsburgs for domination over the myriad German political entities.

The aristocratic character of the officer corps was established early in the eighteenth century as Prussian kings tried to gain the support of wealthy landed aristocrats, known as Junkers, by granting them a virtual monopoly over the selection of officers. In 1733 a cadet school was established in Berlin to train sons of Junkers to be officers. The officer corps was well on the way to becoming the most privileged social class in Prussia.

The chauvinistic militarism of Prussia inspired fear and hatred among other European states and peoples. Under the strong leadership of a self-perpetuating general staff, the army brooked little interference in its affairs by the civil government. Nevertheless, the failure to reform and the lack of preparedness after the death of Frederick the Great in 1786 led to the army's decisive defeat by Napoleon's forces at Jena in October 1806.

Over the next few years, General Gerhard von Scharnhorst guided the revitalization of the army. Reforms included the introduction of universal military service and an end to dependence on mercenaries. The officer corps was expanded to include commoners, and officers were encouraged to take greater initiative in battle. The new Prussian army distinguished itself at the Battle of Leipzig in 1813 and again at Waterloo in 1815, where, under the command of Field Marshal Gebhard von Blücher, the army was instrumental in the ultimate defeat of Napoleon.

Prussia's reputation for military efficiency was reestablished by the army's final victories over Napoleon. The Prussian War College (Kriegsakademie) became a model for military staff colleges around the world in the early nineteenth century. A book of that era--On War --written by Karl von Clausewitz, a Prussian general, became a classic, its theories of land warfare still studied by officers of many armies more than 160 years after the author's death.

The unification of the many German states into the German Empire (1871-1918) followed Prussian-led victories over Denmark in 1864, Austria in 1866, and France in 1870-71. Prussia's aggressive policies were masterminded by Otto von Bismarck, who became united Germany's first chancellor (see Bismarck and Unification, ch. 1). Following unification, the legendary Prussian General Staff became the German General Staff. Clausewitz's dictum that civilians should control the military was ignored, and the General Staff became a power center in the highly militaristic regimes of Kaiser Wilhelm I (1858-88) and Kaiser Wilhelm II (1888-1918) (see Imperial Germany, ch. 1).

The German Military in Two World Wars

Prussian-German excellence in military matters was an accepted fact of life, but in the twentieth century the excessive accent on militarism led to two disastrous world wars. Germany's insistence on building a fleet that could challenge Britain's naval domination underscored German bellicosity and pushed Britain toward alignment with France and Russia. When World War I broke out in 1914, Germany attempted to conquer France quickly with a sudden thrust through Belgium. The Germans nearly reached Paris, but the desperate French managed to stiffen their defenses along the Marne River. The front was stabilized in northern France and shifted little during the course of the war in spite of the sacrifice of whole armies in the effort to break through opposing defenses. Although Germany was able to force Russia out of the war in March 1918, the arrival of fresh United States troops, strikes and protests among German workers, and the exhaustion of material resources brought about Germany's collapse in November 1918. General Erich Ludendorff and Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg formed what was in effect a military dictatorship in 1917 but sidestepped responsibility for the military catastrophe by restoring civilian control in the chaos of 1918. They then falsely claimed that the military, undefeated in the field, had been "stabbed in the back" by domestic enemies, a charge that Adolf Hitler employed later to great effect.

Under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, the German General Staff was abolished. The army was limited to 100,000 personnel and the navy to a force of 15,000. Aircraft, tanks, submarines, and other offensive weapons were prohibited. The left bank of the Rhine was demilitarized. The Allies intended that the civilian government of the postwar Weimar Republic (1918-33) completely control the military and that the destruction of the General Staff epitomize the end of Prussianism. Nevertheless, a general staff continued to function under the sobriquet "Troop Office," and its leaders took advantage of the weak civilian government to reassert their privileged positions. When Hindenburg was elected president of the republic in 1925, the general staff officers regained their influence in the government (see The Weimar Republic, 1918-33, ch. 1).

During the 1920s, a clandestine alliance was formed between the armies of the Weimar Republic and the Soviet Union to circumvent the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. The German high command under General Hans von Seeckt made secret arrangements with the Soviet high command enabling German officers and specialists to study and train with modern weapons in the Soviet Union in return for German technical assistance in the establishment of Soviet defense industries. This collaboration helped keep alive the military know-how used later as the basis of Hitler's war machine.

By September 1939, when Hitler's invasion of Poland triggered World War II, Germany had a formidable army, a potent navy, and the best equipped air force in the world. The blitzkrieg (lightning war), in which highly mobile, tank-heavy land armies were deployed in conjunction with large numbers of close-support aircraft, included tactics never before seen in warfare. In the spring of 1940, the German army, the Wehrmacht, defeated Denmark and Norway, outflanked French defenses along the Maginot Line, destroyed the armies of France and Belgium, and forced the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Forces at Dunkirk--all in a little over a month.

The rapid victories of the early war period did not lead to peace, however. France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, and Poland were occupied, but the staunch resistance of Britain's Royal Air Force deterred Hitler's planned invasion of Britain. The war took on a global character in 1941, with the Wehrmacht's invasion of its erstwhile ally, the Soviet Union, in June and Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor the following December, which drew the United States into the conflict. Even though the redoubtable Nazi war machine fought on for almost four more years, the resources and manpower that the Allies could invest eventually sealed the fate of Hitler's vaunted "Thousand-Year Reich."

Once the Soviet forces were able to turn the tide in their favor on the Eastern Front and the Western Allies established themselves in France, there could no longer be any doubt about the outcome of the war. Nevertheless, Hitler refused to seek peace. The inevitable result was the destruction not only of the country's armed forces but also of its towns and cities, its industrial capacity, and its transportation system. Despite this second catastrophic defeat in fewer than thirty years, the German reputation for military excellence survived. The defeats could be attributed to strategic blunders, two-front wars, and madness and depravity among the Nazi leadership.

The Allies demanded and received Nazi Germany's unconditional surrender in May 1945. Two months later, at a summit conference held at Potsdam, near Berlin, the leaders of the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union decreed, inter alia, the demilitarization of Germany. Although the Allies disagreed on many issues discussed at Potsdam, they were in accord on the need to prevent a resurgence of German militarism; toward that end, they ordered total disarmament. In the immediate postwar years, however, the Allies could not agree on the terms of a peace treaty, and before long they were aligning on opposite sides of the Cold War. By 1949 the British, French, and United States zones of occupation had become West Germany, and the Soviet zone had become East Germany. The border between the two republics became the front line of the Cold War, or, in the term popularized by Winston Churchill, the Iron Curtain. Soon, uniformed Germans carrying weapons were appearing on both sides of the border (see Postwar Occupation and Division, ch. 2).

Data as of August 1995

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