Skip to main content
Harvard University Press - home

A Lesson in German Military History with Peter Wilson

Interview

Iron and Blood
Iron and Blood Peter H. Wilson

In his landmark book Iron and Blood: A Military History of the German-Speaking Peoples since 1500, acclaimed historian Peter H. Wilson offers a masterful reappraisal of German militarism and warfighting over the last five centuries, leading to the rise of Prussia and the world wars. Wilson answers our questions about this complex history, breaking down key moments and challenging preconceptions about a “German way of war.”

Author - Editorial Staff

Date - 3 October 2023

Time to read - 6 min

Why did you feel it important to include the histories of Austria and Switzerland in the story of German military history?

Modern Germany is a very recent creation. The Federal Republic’s current frontiers date from 1990 with the reunification of the two Germanies created by the Cold War. Germany’s size and location in Europe had shifted significantly several times before, while its political structure underwent profound transformations. War was central to all these processes, but it makes little sense to frame German military history in isolation from that of Austria and Switzerland to which it was intimately connected for centuries. All three countries have their own martial traditions and stories, but these are often entwined and have shared much in common, so the book uses “German” more as a shorthand to encompass the large section of Central Europe to which these states belonged.

That’s also why the book starts around 1500, when the countries which are now the German, Austrian, and Swiss republics were part of the Holy Roman Empire. Although the medieval Empire was not short on conflict, wars were usually short and intermittent. The later fifteenth century saw the creation of new mechanisms for mobilizing armies for more sustained and coordinated struggles, in response to broader changes in European warfare. Importantly for German history, this was not achieved by forging a single, national state, but instead through collective, multilateral structures within a decentralized polity.

What do you see as key transformations in German military history?

German military development has broadly followed European trends, but with some important distinctive characteristics. The first key transformation was the creation of a mobilization structure around 1500 which shared the burdens across the numerous principalities and cities composing the Holy Roman Empire. While Switzerland opted out, it nonetheless adopted its own version of this decentralized system which proved surprisingly durable.

The second transformation was the emergence of permanent, professional forces during the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These assumed a structure which remained broadly the same into the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815). Those conflicts saw the adoption of new forms of conscription, which became more comprehensive around the mid-nineteenth century and transformed military service into a rite of passage for a significant proportion of young men.

New forms of command and control also emerged in the nineteenth century, notably the General Staff which was widely copied around the world following the unexpected German victory over France in 1870-1. The newly united German Empire now joined Austria as a significant naval power, ranked second only to Britain by 1914 (with Austria-Hungary as seventh largest). Air forces were added during the First World War, but despite producing innovative and iconic aircraft, Germany never succeeded in wielding airpower as effectively as its enemies in either that conflict or WWII.

Defeat in 1945 was indeed a major rupture, but there were several important continuities across the mid-twentieth century, especially in the Communist-controlled East Germany which remained more highly militarized than the West. Germany’s relative disregard for its allies in both world wars also contrasts with its previous and subsequent behavior, and its integration within NATO and the EU echoes the earlier tradition of burden-sharing and multilateral collective security.

“Groundbreaking and highly accessible…The return of conventional warfare to Europe’s shores undoubtedly gives [Wilson’s] astute historical reflections on the conduct of war in central Europe an unforeseen, and unhoped for, topicality.”

—Robert Gewarth, Financial Times

What was the role of Prussia in German military history?

Prussia has a central place in German military history, not least because its experience has shaped how that wider story has been perceived and interpreted. Many of the key symbols of German militarism, like the Iron Cross and the Pickelhaube spiked helmet, originated in Prussia. However, it was Austria that was the primary military power until its defeat by Prussia in 1866. Austria consistently had a larger army and was the only German state capable of launching a major war independent of allies.

Prussia’s rise was far from certain, and it only narrowly escaped disaster on several occasions, notably in 1806 when it was decisively defeated by France. Even in 1866, most bets were on an Austrian victory. It is also important not to forget the “Third Germany” of lesser states like Bavaria, Saxony, and Württemberg, whose armies had often been larger, and sometimes more creative than Prussia’s prior to about 1700, and which remained separate organizations until 1919.

To what extent can we still talk of a “German” way of war?

The presence of these smaller armies alongside the Austrian and Prussian forces already indicates that it is difficult to talk of a single German way of war. Germany’s military history has always contained several threads. What people usually mean by the idea of a German way of war is primarily a product of both world wars, particularly the Second. It is the belief that, surrounded by more numerous and collectively richer enemies, the country had to fight swift, decisive wars of annihilation because it could not afford a protracted war of attrition.

Some German generals had indeed reached that conclusion by the 1850s and interpreted their earlier history, notably the reign of Prussia’s Frederick the Great (1740-86), to justify this belief. This conviction became more entrenched following the victory over France in 1870-1 which nearly unraveled as French partisans and volunteers continued to resist after their country’s regular army had been largely destroyed. Germany entered both world wars convinced it had to win quickly, and the spectacular victories in the opening years of WWII suggested that its armed forces could really achieve this. However, the Germans are hardly unique in desiring a quick victory, while their conduct of both world wars demonstrates the difficulties of doing this. The two post-war Germanies were subsumed within the rival Cold War alliances and had to adopt the doctrines of their American and Soviet sponsors. Reunited Germany’s membership of NATO and the EU continues to constrain any distinct way of war, and Germany’s recent experience in Afghanistan revealed that its forces lack a war-fighting doctrine as opposed to a peacekeeping one.

Iron And Blood Book By Peter Wilson
Peter H. Wilson is the President of the Society for the History of War, a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and Chichele Professor of the History of War at the University of Oxford.