It seems silly to keep my dissertation, “Wilhelm Groener, Officering, and the Schlieffen Plan” (2006), locked up on databases only accessible via research libraries, so I’ve made it available as a PDF document via Google Docs. I still reserve all rights on the thing, but I might as well make it more accessible to people without a university affiliation.

If you want to know more, before you view a 1 MB document, here are just the abstract and table of contents.

And here are two short blog posts on the topic:

Finally, in historiographic terms, a very short article I did is relevant: “Particularistic Traditions in a National Profession: Reflections on the Wilhelmine Army Officer Corps” (2000).

Where does the journey go from here? Since the Schlieffen Plan debate is still going on, I should update my findings on that issue and write an article accessible to broader scholarly audiences. Maybe a couple other scholarly articles are possible too; however, I am not contemplating a monograph at the moment, as my editing job and adjunct teaching are keeping me pretty busy.

Update, Feb. 12, 2012: For more posts on Wilhelm Groener, the Schlieffen Plan, and German war planning, please visit my new blog, Stoneman’s Corner.

Teaching undergraduate students forces me to deliver narratives and explanations to people who do not share my professional assumptions about how the world works and the way history should be told. It challenges me to think about how I can retell old stories with a different vocabulary. In the process I might even learn something. This is especially likely to happen when students ask me questions or express strong feelings about a major event. I last noticed this phenomenon in the fall, when I had my students visit the Holocaust Museum and discuss their experience in the course’s online forum. I got to thinking about it again today because of an article about innovation in the New York Times last month. Innovative Minds Don’t Think Alike, by Janet Rae-Dupree, points to the benefits that can accrue to experts when they open themselves up to the perspectives of outsiders.

Rae-Dupree’s article suggests to me other possible sources of historiographical innovation. What if we spent more time talking to historians doing research outside of our narrow areas of expertise? Such conversations should occur not only among historians with different regional specializations, but also among historians who study quite different things.

This understanding of innovation also points to the intellectual bankruptcy of arguments some historians offer in condemnation of their colleagues’ use of theoretical work from other disciplines. Drawing on the work of scholars in other fields can be highly productive. As a graduate student, I found the theoretical and empirical work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu both stimulating and productive. I used it in my research, if not in my narratives, but I always used to wonder if historians’ eclectic use of such work might lead to some rather unorthodox results that the original sociologist might reject. Nowadays I do not think any such rejection would bother me or undermine the value of the work I did. Maybe it takes an outsider to spark innovation in history, and maybe it also takes a historian to see a new way to use an outsider’s ideas.

This line of thought presupposes that innovation in history is a good thing, provided that it is true to the sources. Those who subscribe to the notion that history is only a recreation of the past as it actually was will probably object. I suspect, though, that while Leopold von Ranke’s view of history informs the working ethos of most of us historians, most of us are also more skeptical—and modest—about our ability to recreate such a past, especially in view of our rapidly changing present, which affects how we see the past.

Historical scholarship can be as much the result of accident as planning. How on earth did I come to write a dissertation on Wilhelm Groener? I thought I liked doing social history, not biography. If I studied the army, I was more apt to find common soldiers interesting, not a general who assumed operational control of the whole army at the end of the First World War and who people addressed as “Your Excellency.” I was also not particularly interested in military-technical questions. Yes, I found the questions about humanity in warfare that I had explored in my M.A. thesis compelling. But German war planning for the First World War? And the German general staff’s experience of the war? These were not my things either, or so I thought. Besides, were not many meters of library shelf-space filled with books on these problems?

I first looked at Wilhelm Groener in a research seminar whose theme was the German bourgeoisie in Imperial Germany. Historians were devoting much renewed attention to this social class in the 1990s, because earlier interpretations had blamed the German middle class for not being middle-class enough and not doing what any bourgeoisie supposedly should have done, which was to put Prussia’s powerful nobility in its place and establish a proper constitutional monarchy. Germany’s unfortunate authoritarian modern history was attributed to an abstract process of maldevelopment, a German special path or Sonderweg, along which the bourgeoisie had failed to do what it allegedly had done in Britain and France, that is, rise up in a bourgeois revolution that made everything normal. New research on the middle class was beginning to undermine this view. Far from aping the nobility, the bourgeoisie had developed a self-confident, vibrant class culture. Our task in the seminar was to examine this research and consider its implications for understanding the broader outline—or grand narrative—of modern German history.

I eventually decided to concentrate on the officer corps, because it played a key role in the narrative of German exceptionalism. The nobility had dominated the officer corps and made it an illiberal force in society more generally. According to this narrative, birth, not military know-how, had played a decisive role in military careers. Hence, not only had the military been illiberal, but its leaders had allegedly not kept up with the times. Parallel to this version of the officer corps, however, existed another in which the German general staff had been the preeminent professional military organization in the world. Which, if any, of these interpretations was right? Here was an opportunity to examine the military in a mainstream historiographical context. The German bourgeoisie was receiving a lot of attention in the historiography, but the military—so central to the German Sonderweg thesis—remained largely untouched by this research.

So I did a comparative research paper on August Keim, Erich Ludendorff, and Wilhelm Groener, all commoners and all general staffers in Imperial Germany. I chose these men because there were enough published primary sources in Washington, DC to make a research paper viable. I showed that these men all had adhered to the mainstream bourgeois values that the new historiography identified, and I demonstrated that no contradiction between a military and a bourgeois ethos had existed. These commoners had not been “feudalized” by their aristocratic comrades-in-arms.

Considering these issues without reference to the First World War was unthinkable, so I also explored Keim’s, Ludendorff’s, and Groener’s images of war. After all, the feudal interpretation of the officer corps included a charge of aristocratic anachronism. Unfortunately, I was unable to link their social backgrounds and images of war, except to point out that their images of war comported with contemporary developments. Nonetheless, the work proved fruitful enough to suggest the possibility of a dissertation on one of these officers, Wilhelm Groener. I could use his biography as a vehicle for analyzing the sociology and culture of the Imperial German officer corps.

Related Posts: Wilhelm Groener (1867-1939), 8/25/2007, and Paradoxes, 7/20/2007.

For people new to this subject, the classic account of the German officer corps is Gordon A. Craig, The Politics of the Prussian Army, 1640–1945, rev. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964). For an accessible introduction to research on the German bourgeoisie, see David Blackbourn and Richard J. Evans, eds., The German Bourgeoisie: Essays on the Social History of the German Middle Class from the Late Eighteenth to the Early Twentieth Century (London: Routledge, 1991). If you become deeply engaged in the subject, you might want to consult my dissertation.

Update, Feb. 12, 2012: For more posts on Wilhelm Groener, the Schlieffen Plan, and German war planning, please visit my new blog, Stoneman’s Corner.

Meet Wilhelm Groener, an unassuming Swabian of modest social provenance who rose to the number two position in the Imperial German army by the end of the First World War. Here he is in about 1920, soon after his retirement from the army in the young Weimar Republic.

Groener, the subject of my dissertation, informed Kaiser Wilhelm II in November 1918 that the army would not follow him back to Prussia to fight a civil war to quash the revolution. Confronted with this reality, Wilhelm II abdicated and fled to the Netherlands.

By rights Groener’s boss, Chief of the General Staff Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, should have delivered the bad news, but he was a Prussian officer and nobleman, imbibed imbued in the traditions of military service to his supreme war lord, the Prussian king and German emperor. Hindenburg did not have the nerve.

Groener was present at the death of another German regime too. He served as minister of defense from 1928 to 1932. Near the end of this tenure he was also acting minister of the interior in the Brüning cabinet. In this capacity he pushed to outlaw Hitler’s brown-shirts, the S.A., which gave right-wing extremists in the army a chance to withdraw their support of the defense minister and prevail upon President Hindenburg to withdraw his confidence from Groener, who then resigned. Soon the rest of the cabinet did too, and Hitler came to power less than a year later.

Groener witnessed and participated in some of modern Germany’s key political events, but that is not what I wrote about in my dissertation. Instead, I focussed on the relationship between his social background and military career, which was interesting precisely because he rose to such prominence in an organization alleged to have been the exclusive playground of the Prussian nobility.

At least that is how my research started.

Source of image: Groener’s page at the Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin.

Update, Feb. 12, 2012: For more posts on Wilhelm Groener, the Schlieffen Plan, and German war planning, please visit my new blog, Stoneman’s Corner.

I was looking through Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Physicists, a play I have used a few times in a survey course on modern Europe. In the back of the English translation by James Kirkup are “21 Points to The Physicists,” one of which reads, “The more human beings proceed by plan the more effectively they may be hit by accident.” This quote sums up my recently completed dissertation on three levels that I would like to consider: the content of my research from the point of view of its historical subjects, the path my research takes from my point of view, and the shape of the narrative that eventually emerges. I plan to look at these paradoxes in future posts at irregular intervals. For now I will mention a different one that is not as difficult to resolve:

I spent four years in the U.S. Army during peacetime, and I disliked being a soldier. I also rarely found military history interesting. Nonetheless, my research has focused on war. My M.A. thesis is about Bavarian soldiers and French civilians in the Franco-Prussian War, and my Ph.D. thesis is about the Imperial German officer corps and war planning. How did a former soldier who hated his experience in the military come to enjoy studying military history?

At least part of the answer lies in my military experience. A kid from the woods of New Hampshire had a lot of learning to do in a unit in which most everyone else came from the inner city or rural south. Add class, race, and educational levels to this mix, and I got a first-rate education. You see, I was not just in the army, but combat arms, specifically, the field artillery. When I enlisted I made the naive assumption that the army was the army no matter what one did, and it was offering a substantial bonus for four years in the artillery. So why not? Without going into a longer story, let me say that I left the army in 1987 with an insight of which at the time I was unaware: studying the army can teach a person a lot about that army’s country.

Not until I was doing my M.A. in Augsburg, Germany did I realize that I knew this. I think it was late 1992 or early 1993 when I met Professor Stig Förster, who had just returned to Europe from a stint at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC. Stig was editing On the Road to Total War: The American Civil War and the German Wars of Unification, 1861-1871, and I, as an American there, was recruited as one of his student helpers. I found the topics interesting, because in a seminar I had recently taken with another historian, we had learned about the lead-up to the war and the postwar settlement, but the war just kind of happened. I remarked on this circumstance to Stig. One thing led to another and he suggested I could explore the Bavarians’ treatment of civilians in 1870-71 for my master’s thesis. The topic sounded interesting, but also vaguely pornographic. Was it even decent to probe into such suffering? At the same time, scenes from Bosnia on TV suggested to me that such topics mattered. Before making up my mind, I asked if there was an historical treatment of these kinds of issues that might show me the historical value of examining atrocities. That led to Michael Fellman, Inside War: The Guerrilla Conflict In Missouri During The American Civil War, as well as James M. McPherson, Battle Cry Of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Of course, I also dug into Michael Howard’s perennial The Franco-Prussian War: The German Invasion of France, 1870-71. These books showed me that the study of war was integral to mainstream history and vice versa. With war being fought once again on European soil (the Balkans), I not only was hooked, but I thought such studies were a moral imperative.

Having completed a PhD program and many years of teaching, I no longer see my research in such grandiose terms. Still, I try to integrate at least one lecture on broad trends in war and society into each survey course I teach. I think students need to know that human behavior in war is historically contingent. They need to know, for instance, that humanity and atrocities in warfare have a history. The list is much longer, of course, but I can revisit the topic another time.

Thank you for reading. Please feel free to leave a comment or ask a question.

Update (9/5/2007): I originally posted this as Part I of a series. While I plan to explore the questions raised here, I have decided to give follow-up posts their own titles.

Update, Feb. 12, 2012: For more posts on military and other history, please visit my new blog, Stoneman’s Corner.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.