Militarism and Democracy in Germany

By Oswald Garrison Villard

[Scribner's Magazine, February 1915]

Ninety-three German savants who pledged their honor and reputation to the truth of their statements have recently declared that German militarism is one and indivisible with German culture. "Without it," they said, "our culture would long since have been wiped off the earth." From many other German sources come denials that Germany's militarism is a menace to the peace of Europe or to anybody else. It is defended, moreover, not only as a cultural but as a democratic institution. Germans are to-day thanking God for their militarism, on the ground that but for it Napoleon would never have been humbled and the German Empire would never have come to pass; that to its extent and thoroughness alone Germany owes her safety at this hour, when she is beset by the troops of nearly half the world, but has thus far carried on the war almost entirely on other people's soil. It is, therefore, worth while for Americans to examine this German institution carefully, particularly as we are already being told by certain soothsayers that the war convicts England of folly in not having resorted to universal conscription, and places upon us the duty of still greater military burdens, since by some occult reasoning it is apparent to them that if Germany wins we are to be the next victims of her aggrandizing ambition.

Like the nation itself, the German army is curiously two-sided, for it is both a democracy and an autocracy, but with the autocracy on top. It is a democracy because within its regiments are men of every rank and caste, of every grade of learning and-every degree of poverty and wealth. It is democratic because it is compulsory and because it spares none. No amount of pull or power can free a German from his year or more of service; if he escapes it is because the army's draft for the year when he becomes liable for service is so large that all cannot be cared for in the existing organizations, or because some physical disability insures his exemption. Thus, when the call to arms came on the 4th of August it was literally an uprising of the people. The great wave of emotion which exalted the whole nation gained its impetus because men of every class went forth, singing, to die. Barriers of all kinds were levelled; in the enthusiasm of that tremendous hour, caste and rank were, for the moment, forgotten. The entire citizenship was drawn together by the levelling influence of devotion to a single cause. For the moment all Germany was a democracy, and democratic were the forces which stormed Liège, and swept like irresistible gray-green waves of the sea through Brussels, until they were nearly in sight of the defences of Paris.

In the trenches to-day lie side by side, as common soldiers or non-commissioned officers, men who have made their mark in the field of learning, or science, or business, or the skilled professions. Some reserve regiments would seem, to be a cross section of the population. One of its lieutenants may be of humble origin, a minor official, let us say, in the Dresdner Bank; serving with him may be a reserve lieutenant who drafted last year one of the most important bills ever laid before the Reichstag. A reserve non-commissioned officer who reports to them, may be a survivor of the twenty-six Socialist deputies to the Reichstag who found the call of conventional patriotism far more compelling than the peace principles of their party. A lieutenant next to them may bear the plebeian name of Wilhelm Müller, yet be one of the ablest junior officials of the Colonial Office, for the moment bedfellow with a police officer of Berlin who has exchanged the pursuit of criminals for the pursuit of the French. Next in line may be a university professor of distinction, a painter for whom great things are prophesied, a musician of note, and with them may be serving apprentices, laborers, street-cleaners, conductors, hod-carriers—men from every humble and honorable walk in life.

There is similarly no discrimination among regiments when war is on; as far as this the General Staff's democracy extends. Whatever the prestige of a regiment in peace times, whether it be the Garde du Corps, the crack cavalry regiment, or the Death's Head Hussars, until lately commanded by the Crown Prince, or one of the Imperial Infantry Guards, it meets with no other consideration than that of the most plebeian infantry regiment when the fighting is under way. It makes no difference if every officer in it is of ancient and noble lineage. The Guards are reported to have been among the heaviest losers in the present war, precisely as at St. Privat in 1870, when five battalions lost every officer and were fighting under their sergeants when the day was won. It is just the same with the Kaiser's younger sons; they have gone into the actual welter of battle exactly as if offspring of the humblest Westphalian peasant, Prince Joachim being wounded by shrapnel and Prince Oscar collapsing from exhaustion and heart weakness after a charge at the head of his regiment against Turcos, whose bullets laid low most of his regimental officers. The Crown Prince may be safe by reason of his being the nominal commander of an army, but his brothers are alive to-day only by the fortunes of war. Not unnaturally the German press has drawn biting contrasts between the sons of the Kaiser and the Prince of Wales, who, it was officially announced in England, was, at twenty, not sufficiently trained as a soldier to go to the front until three and a half months of war had passed. That the privilege of dying as the German General Staff wills belongs to princes as much as to anybody else is attested by the death of Lieutenant-General Frederick, Prince of Saxe-Meiningen, a brother-in-law of the Kaiser's sister and of other notables.

But the brief for the democracy of the German army does not end here. It enforces, so its adherents claim, a fine standard of personal conduct, of physical vigor, and of loyalty to King and country throughout the nation. The army takes the humblest conscript, however ignorant and lacking in self-respect, and turns him, out a decent, healthy citizen with a fine physique, excellent carriage, inured to heavy burdens, long marches, and absolute obedience. If he is a dull clodhopper from a Polish province, unable to speak German, the recruit is taught his King's language and how to write it; he learns, as Kipling puts it, to "wash behind his ears," how to eat, how to walk, how to keep himself scrupulously neat, and how to think for himself.

The great lesson of subordination to authority is thus learned, and in many cases self-restraint, as a result of methods which are applied just as rigorously to the son of a millionaire or of an aristocrat. The natural German love of outdoors and of exercise in the open is intensified by service with the colors; a genuine comradeship with men in all walks of life springs up, and with it comes the ability to feel as a German, to think in terms of the nation, whose patriotic songs one and all sing as they march, for singing is a wise requirement of the German military training. Certainly, as the English military reports have so generously attested, this training teaches men to face certain death for the Fatherland with a devotion never surpassed by Occidentals and equalling the stoical and fatalistic pursuance of death by Orientals. Again, the wonderful thoroughness of the military machine leaves its impress upon all who are for a time of its cogs, and to it is attributed some of that unequalled efficiency of the Germans to which the nation owes its extraordinary national rise and prosperity. The army is, in other words, regarded as a vital part of the great German system of education.

If this were all to be said of German militarism its case would be, perhaps, won, England and the United States might then be tempted to add a similar course to their educational system. But there is the other side.

It is hard to conceive of a closer corporation or a more autocratic body than the German General Staff; it is the army to which it gives the dominating note. It is a group of aggressive, hard-working, exceptionally able officers, envied by soldiers all over the world because the nation does as they tell it. In 1913, when they demanded one hundred and forty thousand more men, the war minister acted as their spokesman, and the Reichstag hardly questioned; the Socialists, foreshadowing their present desertion of their peace principles, acquiesced by a cowardly approval or dodged by a refusal to vote. For the first time after this vote the tax-gatherer knocked at German doors, not to take a share of the income, but some of the citizens' capital, and no one protested. To question the General Staff would be like questioning the Deity, a fact which explains why, the General Staff having declared that it was essential to invade Belgium, nobody in all Germany doubts that decision. One may start controversies over sacred theology in the Kaiser's domains, but not one as to the all-embracing wisdom of the General Staff, for on that there have never been two opinions since 1866 up to the time of this writing. When the deadly forty-two-centimetre guns were planned, the Grosser Generalstab asked the Reichstag for a large appropriation and obtained it without disclosing in any degree the purposes for which it was asked. It was enough that the war minister declared the Generalstab must have it for a purpose too secret and too important to be intrusted to the Reichstag committee on army estimates or to any but the inner ring of the army.

It is that inner ring which settles the fate of an officer after he has reached colonel's rank. Let one be overslaughed and he resigns at once. Let him blunder in the manoeuvres and his ''papers" go forward promptly; the General Staff sees to that. Physical efficiency is insisted upon as well as mental. An officer may be as dissipated as he pleases, but he must be on hand with a clear head for the five o'clock spring and summer march-out of his regiment. His habits and customs may be deserving of all sorts of censure, but if he studies diligently, passes his examinations well, has good efficiency reports, and is altogether ein schneidiger Offizier his superiors will say nothing. There is no age limit as in our army, as is evidenced by the prevalence of men approaching seventy in high positions to-day. Thus, Generals von Kluck, von Hausen, and von Billow are sixty-eight; Generals von Moltke and von Emmich, the latter the capturer of Liège, are sixty-six; and General von Hindenburg is sixty-seven. But to hold their positions men like these must be vigorous physically and mentally, agreeable to the General Staff, and absolute upholders of the existing military traditions and order.

By this we do not mean that each general must be a follower of Bernhardi. Many of the German generals probably never saw his book nor even heard of it. But they must subscribe fervently to the overbearing pretensions of the military clique, to the autocratic attitude of the army toward the civilian and the nation. They must carry themselves as members of an exalted caste whose adoration of their uniform borders on pagan worship. Take the case of Colonel von Reuter, who commanded the Ninety-ninth Infantry, stationed at Zabern, in Alsace, and was acquitted in January of last year (1914) of the charges of illegal assumption of the executive power, illegal imprisonment of civilians, and the invasion of private houses in order to make arrests. This was at the time when his young officers, whom one could hardly accuse of being democratic in spirit, were sabring or persecuting the civilians, who were driven almost to revolt by the overbearing arrogance of the military. Colonel von Reuter himself openly and aggressively stated on his trial that if matters had gone any further he would have turned his machine-guns, which stood ready in the courtyard of the barracks, on the populace. "Blood may flow," he had threatened at the crucial moment, "for we are protecting the prestige and the honor of the whole army and the gravely shaken authority of the government." "I was convinced that our government was allowing its reins to drag on the ground," he told the court, and so, in the name of autocracy, he assured the public prosecutor that "jurisprudence ends here," and declared martial law.

A court of high officers sustained Colonel von Reuter and his subordinates on the ground that a decree issued by the King of Prussia in 1820—not a law—gave the military the right to intervene, without waiting for a request from civil authority, if they deemed the time had come to act. More than that, the army expressly upheld the arrogant acts of the officers, for whom the judge-advocate never asked more than a week's or three days' imprisonment as punishment! Colonel von Reuter is reported to have won the Iron Cross; and the young officer who sabred the lame cobbler of Zabern is also at the front, but not, let us trust, in the name of democracy. In defending Colonel von Reuter, the minister of war, General von Falkenhayn, who has been acting as chief of staff during the recent temporary illness of General von Moltke, declared that while the colonel might have exceeded his authority at times, his acts, nevertheless, saved his officers from the necessity of running their swords through the insulting civilians in order to protect the honor of the "Kaiser's Coat." This coat—hardly a democratic garment—thus inevitably recalls Gessler's hat; the General Staff means that there shall be no vital difference between the deference asked of Wilhelm Tell and that which the German civilian owes to the "gay coat" of the military. Officers have frequently been applauded and acquitted, or at most imprisoned in a fortress for a few weeks, for stabbing civilians or killing them in duels that are against the law but are often forced upon officers by decrees of the regimental courts of honor whose ideals of conduct are direct inheritances from the days of Frederick the Great.

In brief, the army is a narrow caste with professional ideals of a mediaeval character scrupulously maintained in the face of modern progress by the ruling clique. From its highest officers, its General Staff, its Crown Prince, as well as its Kaiser, the army takes its tone as a bulwark of the privileged classes, to whom anything that smacks of democracy is anathema. It is the chief pillar of the great landlords, the Junker, and the aristocrats, as it is of the throne. When the Reichstag passed a vote of censure on the government because of the Zabern affair, an almost unheard-of thing, the government simply ignored the vote. Doubtless the imperial chancellor and General von Falkenhayn, the censured ministers, smile to-day if they think of this incident, and reflect how completely the war has placed the Reichstag, the Social Democrats, and all the rest of the civilians in their power. There being no responsible ministry to fall in Germany, the fate of the nation has rested—less than a year after their censure by the national parliament—in their and the Kaiser's hands. As for the Kaiser, and the Crown Prince who publicly upheld Colonel von Reuter, they may for the moment be democrats—the Kaiser has declared that he will never take note of factional differences again—but the only reason why they do not fear the Social Democrats, whom a few years ago the Kaiser denounced as traitors to the country, is the existence of the army. General von Falkenhayn declared in the Reichstag, in December, 1913, that "without the army not a stone of the Reichstag building would remain in place." Is there any doubt that this democratic organization of eight hundred thousand men would close the doors of the Reichstag if the Kaiser so ordered? Did not the grandfathers of those now in the trenches in the Imperial Guard regiments crush out the republican uprising in 1848? Did not the Prussian guns of the grandfather of the present Kaiser shoot to pieces the same uprising in Rhenish Bavaria, Baden, and elsewhere?

In this anti-democratic tendency the German army is not different from any other. The same trend toward caste and autocracy is noticeable, to greater or less degree, in every army; even a study of the social life of our American navy would prove this. If England creates a great standing army the same phenomena will be still more manifest than in her present regular force, which has been about the most undemocratic machine thinkable. The social, court, and petticoat influences that controlled the British service down to the Boer War have been known of all informed men. It took this present war, with its overwhelming need for officers, to break down the barriers of caste erected against the common soldier. Lord Kitchener did an unheard-of thing recently when he advanced one hundred and twenty-five sergeants and corporals to lieutenancies in a single issue of the official Gazette, yet no one would describe Lord Kitchener as an apostle of democracy. The nature of an army and its very organization are undemocratic; the whole basis is a hierarchy with the power centring in one head.

Of course, the autocratic nature of an army is not affected by the bourgeois antecedents of some of its officers. In Germany a man of plainest lineage, be he a good soldier, can rise to high rank. A number of the German corps commanders are to-day commoners who do not write the von before their names. But they must have inherited or married means in order to hold their present positions, since German officers cannot live on their pay. Again, many regiments are wholly closed to men without title, and Jews are, of course, quite good enough to be reserve officers, and to serve as Kannonenfutter, whenever the General Staff pleases. But few, indeed, have been active officers and none have risen to high rank. Yet these are not the only undemocratic discriminations. Such newspapers as the Jewish Frankfurter Zeitung and the Berliner Tageblatt, as well as the Socialist Vörwarts—the Frankfurter and the Tageblatt are now unreservedly upholding the war and the army—have in the past filled columns upon columns with discreet criticisms of the military. When the army increase was voted last year certain Socialists took the opportunity to criticise the favoritism in regulations shown to the Imperial Guards. Of course, they accomplished nothing. Why should the General Staff pay attention to mere members of the Reichstag, and Socialists at that? In a democratic organization criticism of the organization is permitted; none is tolerated in the German army. When an exceptionally able military critic of the Berliner Tageblatt, Colonel Gadke, a retired officer, undertook to criticise the service, the military authorities tried to deprive him of his right to sign as "former colonel" of an artillery regiment. That he is not figuring as a correspondent or critic now has perhaps some connection with this incident.

If there is any atmosphere in which democracy does not flourish it is that of a Continental barracks. German discipline is unyielding as iron. The power of the officer is absolute and that of the noncommissioned officer little less so. The men in the ranks change every three years, but the non-commissioned officers are usually. professional soldiers for a long term who know the ropes well. The conditions are such that brutal ones among them can make existence a hell for any man they do not like. Just as it is hard to prevent some hazing at West Point, so there is always some in the German barracks. It is often almost impossible to checkmate brutality among the non-commissioned officers because the presumption is always in favor of authority; so there are occasionally suicides in the barracks, frequently desertions, and sometimes trials of men finally caught in ill-treating subordinates. When Rosa Luxemburg, the fiery Socialist orator, declared at Freiburg last year (1914), in speaking of the case of a horribly abused soldier at Metz: "It is certainly one of those dramas which are enacted day in and day out in German barracks, although the groans of the actors seldom reach our ears," General von Falkenhayn, as war minister, prosecuted the "Red Rosa" for libelling the army. The case was promptly dropped when her counsel announced that they proposed to call one thousand and thirty eye-witnesses to such wrong-doing, mostly in the form of "slaps in the face, punches and kicks, beating with sheathed sabres and bayonets, with riding-whips and harness straps; forcible-jamming of ill-set helmets on the wearer's head; compulsory baths in icy water, followed by scrubbing down with scrub-brushes until the blood ran; compulsory squatting in muscle-straining attitudes until the victim collapsed or wept for pain; unreasonable fatigue drill, and so on.

There were also abundant cases of absurd and humiliating punishments inflicted by non-commissioned officers, such as turning the men out of bed and making them climb to the top of cupboards or sweep out the dormitory with tooth-brushes." Now, single men in barracks are never plaster saints, as Kipling, the exalter of British militarism and hater of German militarism, has made it quite clear to us. Sporadic cases of abuse happen in our own American barracks; but no one will, it is to be hoped, assert that in this phase of its existence the German army even faintly suggests a democracy. This army has had its Dreyfus case, too, though the victim was not an officer, but a Sergeant Martin who on a second trial was found guilty, on circumstantial evidence, of killing his captain. The two civilian members of the court found him not guilty; the prosecutor asked only for imprisonment, but the military judges pronounced the death sentence in addition to imprisonment. They felt they must uphold their caste, right or wrong. A lieutenant stationed at Memel was found to have beaten a soldier so severely with a sword that his victim had to be dropped from the military service, compensated, and pensioned for injuries "incident to the service." Not that the other type of officer is lacking. As the writer knows by personal experience, there are plenty of kindly, gifted, and charming officers who are neither fire-eaters nor war-worshippers, who write no jingo books and do not subscribe to Bernhardi. They despise the intrigues, the narrowness, and frequent immorality of the small garrison, and the dissipation of life in the big cities. They recognize the mediaeval character of the code of honor, but they are helpless to change it, and as they grow older the more ready they are to think an intense militarism the normal condition of society. If there are many officers of this type, particularly in the south German armies, the trend is, however, toward the overbearing arrogance of the Von Reuters, which is again merely saying that militarism unchecked and unsubordinated to civilian control will run to excesses everywhere. The note of Bernhardi has been more and more often heard with the cry that war is the natural state of man and that the German army is for war. It is quite possible that the Kaiser, in the last moments before the war, was overborne against his better judgment by the General Staff clique with which he is surrounded, and signed the fatal order practically under compulsion. But there were thousands of his officers who went to the war exulting that the time had come at last when their years of devoted study and ceaseless training, unsurpassed in its comprehensiveness and its intensity, were to give way to the practical application of all they had learned as to man-killing.

Whether an army which by its very existence creates fear and militaristic rivalry, which forever talks war, can be either a democratic force or, in the long run, a sound educational influence is open to gravest question. As an educational system it has the merits described earlier in this article; but even German professors would hardly deny that it is bought at a heavy cost to the school system of the empire. If there are underpaid common-school teachers anywhere they live in Germany, and particularly in Bavaria. The genteel poverty of these men who have to exist upon their pay is one of the great tragedies of life under the Kaiser. But the economic waste of the army is a chief stumbling-block to any betterment in their condition, precisely as the millions it costs prevent reforms in many other directions. It would seem as if it would be better to have the Krupps earn less than twelve or fourteen per cent per annum and the school-teachers a little more. It would be better to be less efficient as a nation to the extent that that efficiency is created by the army, and for the masses to be happier, with a consequent decrease of a million or so in the Social Democratic voters. As long as they can roll up three millions of votes and still protest against militarism, even though swept off their feet in war time, all cannot be well with a culture founded on military force. That their voices and many others will again be uplifted to protest against war and armies when peace returns is the one thing that is certain about this war.

In no such military and bureaucratic atmosphere as exists in Germany does democracy thrive! Instead, we have the tradition that as the German Empire is the army's creation so the nation's future is dependent wholly upon it. Imitating the ninety-three savants, three thousand German teachers in universities and schools of technology have put their names to the statement that there is no other spirit in the army save that of the nation; that the spirit of German knowledge and militarism are the same; that the German army and the German universities are identical in their aspirations, since both are devoted to science. They, too, apparently cannot understand that a culture which exists only by reason of the arms behind it is no more a normal, healthy growth than is an industry artificially created by a protective tariff and kept alive solely by receiving part or all of its profits by the favor of a treasury. They belie their own culture because it is a free growth while service in the army is compulsory, and compulsory service of the German type may be universal but it is not democratic. Again, this sudden assertion that Germany is wholly dependent upon its army for safety is the historic argument of decadent peoples relying entirely upon mercenaries. Is the German democracy of intellect so without any sources of strength within itself that it cannot flourish save by grace of the militarists? We believe that when the present Ratisch (intoxication) of the German people is at an end their professors will be the first to deny this interdependence of their realm upon another so materialistic, so mediaeval, so autocratic, with such barbarous aims as conquest by blood and iron and man-killing by the hundred thousand. These savants and professors may in defeat become sufficiently sobered even to ask themselves whether all is well with a civilization, or its militaristic hand-maiden, which finds itself surrounded by enemies and is dreaded even beyond seas as a power with the potentiality of great evil.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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