Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany / Edition 1

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In a book that is at once a major contribution to modern European history and a cautionary tale for today, Isabel V. Hull argues that the routines and practices of the Imperial German Army, unchecked by effective civilian institutions, increasingly sought the absolute destruction of its enemies as the only guarantee of the nation's security. So deeply embedded were the assumptions and procedures of this distinctively German military culture that the Army, in its drive to annihilate the enemy military, did not shrink from the utter destruction of civilian property and lives. Carried to its extreme, the logic of "military necessity" found real security only in extremities of destruction, in the "silence of the graveyard."

Hull begins with a dramatic account, based on fresh archival work, of the German Army's slide from administrative murder to genocide in German Southwest Africa (1904–7). The author then moves back to 1870 and the war that inaugurated the Imperial era in German history, and analyzes the genesis and nature of this specifically German military culture and its operations in colonial warfare. In the First World War the routines perfected in the colonies were visited upon European populations. Hull focuses on one set of cases (Belgium and northern France) in which the transition to total destruction was checked (if barely) and on another (Armenia) in which "military necessity" caused Germany to accept its ally's genocidal policies even after these became militarily counterproductive. She then turns to the Endkampf (1918), the German General Staff's plan to achieve victory in the Great War even if the homeland were destroyed in the process—a seemingly insane campaign that completes the logic of this deeply institutionalized set of military routines and practices. Hull concludes by speculating on the role of this distinctive military culture in National Socialism's military and racial policies.

Absolute Destruction has serious implications for the nature of warmaking in any modern power. At its heart is a warning about the blindness of bureaucratic routines, especially when those bureaucracies command the instruments of mass death.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Absolute Destruction is a stimulating, scholarly, fluent, and important book. . . . Almost everything Isabel V. Hull says about German military thought, about Germany's institutional weaknesses in the formulation of strategy, and about the result in war itself—particularly that tactical skill and operational art did duty for strategy—is shrewd and sensible. However, the originality of her book resides elsewhere: in the links between colonial war and European war, and between the German Army and other European armies."—Times Literary Supplement

"Isabel V. Hull has written a powerful analysis of the Prusso-German military between the founding of the German Empire in 1871 up to the end of World War I. . . . It is not difficult to predict that Hull's analytical framework will generate debate and further research. . . . This is a rich and thoughtful book that will lead historians of modern Germany to reexamine the decade prior to 1918, and it may also push scholars of the military in other European societies to test again the relationship between military-political institutions and the resort to extreme violence."—American Historical Review

"'Brilliant' is an adjective that should be used sparingly by reviewers, so that when a truly brilliant book like this one comes along it can be properly designated. Using the concept of organizational culture as her analytical framework, Isabel Hull lays out a coherent explanation for the fact that the Prussian-German army of 1870–1918, in most respects the world's best, functioned so disastrously at the task of formulating strategy in support of rational state policy."—Journal of Military History

"Hull writes with passion as well as exactitude. From the first sentence her target becomes institutional extremism, here meaning the military culture that dominated Germany from 1870 through World War I. . . . She analyzes the presuppositions and implicit assumptions behind military institutions that lead more to particular choices regarding the use of violence during war than do explicit policies or detailed planning."—History: Reviews of New Books

"Isabel V. Hull is one of the most accomplished German historians and surely the best of her generation when it comes to empirically sound, judicious, and yet critical scholarship. In her new book she has taken on the daunting challenge of outlining the specific military role in the descent into genocide, which she locates in World War I. For being so utterly provocative, her argument about German military culture is sound and will have staying power in the debates that will undoubtedly ensue. Of course, as far as I am concerned her main provocation lies in the tantalizing parallels of German military culture and the American one. But hers is a German history and it is a compelling one." —Michael Geyer, University of Chicago

"Absolute Destruction provides an absolutely fascinating and well-balanced analysis of Germany's military culture before and during the Great War. It connects strategy, tactics, and operational logic with societal norms and political practices. It highlights the German case as part of more general European patterns, but it also draws attention to the peculiarities of Imperial Germany. In short: this book is a milestone of historical research."—Ute Frevert, Yale University

"Absolute Destruction is a compelling narrative of conquest that opens in southern Africa and China and concludes on the battlefields of Turkey and northern France and Belgium. The protagonist is not a person but a dogma, military necessity. Using an extraordinary array of sources, Isabel V. Hull tracks military necessity as it swept aside strategic imperatives, morality, and even rational self-interest—always moving toward greater violence and greater risk. In language as terse as it is eloquent, Hull offers a cautionary tale about what can happen when a military culture becomes so popular it cuts itself off from civilian constraints."—Claudia Koonz, Duke University

"This brilliant and conceptually innovative book examines the organizational culture and military practices of the Prusso-German army between victory in 1870 and defeat in 1918. Isabel V. Hull subtly analyzes the cumulative internal pressures on the army to resort to the use of extreme violence in facing its military challenges. She finds that the weakness of external constraints (such as government and public opinion) which might have curtailed such violence distinguished the German army from its European counterparts. Building on its triumph in the Franco-Prussian War, the army insisted on total victory based on the annihilation of the enemy, thus subordinating both strategy and diplomacy to the military conduct of war. A comparative discussion of how British military brutality in the South African War was curbed by public opinion, and ultimately the government, demonstrates the argument in the colonial sphere. Hull's discussion of the Great War focuses on the harshness of occupation practices in Belgium and France as well as in eastern Europe and on the complicity of some German officers in the Turkish genocide of the Armenians. She also highlights the refusal by the military leadership to distinguish between the fate of the nation and that of the army. It was this extremism that proved the real legacy of the Imperial Army to Nazi Germany. Combining wide reading in the historical literature with intensive use of archives, Hull has provided the most compelling analysis so far of the distinguishing features of the Imperial German army over the span of its existence. Historians of Imperial Germany, colonialism, the First World War, and the role of the military everywhere are in her debt for a fine and thought-provoking book."—John Horne, Professor of Modern European History, Trinity College Dublin

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780801472930
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press
  • Publication date: 1/28/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 690,529
  • Product dimensions: 9.30 (w) x 6.60 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Isabel V. Hull is John Stambaugh Professor of History at Cornell University. She is the author of A Scrap of Paper: Breaking and Making International Law during the Great War, Absolute Destruction, and Sexuality, State and Civil Society in Germany, 1700–1815, all from Cornell.

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Table of Contents


Part I: Suppression Becomes Annihilation: Southwest Africa, 1904–1907
1. Waterberg
2. Pursuit and Annihilation
3. Death by Imprisonment

Part II: Military Culture
4. National Politics and Military Culture
5. Lessons of 1870–71: Institutions and Law
6. Standard Practices
7. Doctrines of Fear and Force
8. Stopping the Process

Part III: The First World War
9. Waging War, 1914–1916: Risk, Extremes, and Limits
10. Civilians as Objects of Military Necessity
11. The Armenian Genocide
12. Repetition and Self-Destructions

Conclusions and Implications


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