October 25, 2023

Iron and Blood: An interview with Peter Wilson.

The position of Prussia in Germany will not be determined by its liberalism but by its power... Prussia must concentrate its strength and hold it for the favorable moment, which has already come and gone several times. Since the treaties of Vienna, our frontiers have been ill-designed for a healthy body politic. Not through speeches and majority decisions will the great questions of the day be decided - that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849 - but by iron and blood.”

            Bismarck’s “Iron and Blood” speech of 1862 has not only been understood as the ideological backbone of his foreign policy in Europe, but also as the greatest trademark of modern German militarism. This can be defined as a broad cultural, intellectual, and political stance that has marked the comprehension of German history over the centuries. The myth of a particular German way of waging war, predetermined by that country’s geopolitical situation in the heart of Europe, has shaped a teleological narrative about Germany’s political trajectories, embracing authoritarian forms of politics and the strict professionalization of the armed forces. Countering this conventional narrative is the main goal of Peter Wilson’s last book, Iron and Blood. A Military History of the German-speaking Peoples Since 1500 (Penguin, 2022), winner of the “2023 Duke of Wellington Medal for Military History”. Focused on the German-speaking lands, since the Early Modern Period until present, Iron and Blood aims to “defrost German military history”, by revealing how ideas, practices, institutions, and technology transferred not only across the Empire and its Central European satellites, but also between that region and elsewhere in Europe and the world. As professor Wilson notes in his book: “militarism has indeed been integral to the German past and has shaped how Germans have conducted wars, but that it was neither an end destination nor a single trajectory of development”.

Salvador Lima (European University Institute)

SL: Iron and Blood is a long history of the German-speaking peoples in war. As a historian, you're an early modernist. What have motivated you to address such a large chronology or longue durée? And which challenges have you found in doing so?

PW: I think there has been a trend in the last thirty to forty years to go writing what one might say is “big picture history”. As you say, covering a long period of time. That certainly brought benefits, such as the trend to microhistory and so forth. We really need many different approaches if we are to understand the past and I think something is missing if we do not have these works that take the longer view. We need to stand back and begin to think how things look maybe from a slightly different perspective. As you say, I'm an early modernist, so I was looking at this from an early modern perspective. Whereas most of the people who have done this in the past have been modern historians who have then looked backwards to sort of trace a trajectory. That was sort of my motivation for that. The challenge, of course, is how to tell a coherent story whilst also being sensitive to the detail and the things that maybe do not fit a convenient narrative. And obviously, as an early modernist, the challenge is how to deal with the later 19th and 20th century adequately.

SL: What the reader finds in the book is that one of your goals is to complicate some of the grand narratives on German militarism. You describe it as a teleological framework that starts with the “rise of Prussia” and, let's say, ends with the downfall of the Third Reich. In other words, an inevitable line united by Frederick, Bismarck, and Hitler. When and where did this narrative start to take shape? Is it a German thing? Does it have a transnational dimension on it?

PW: Definitely. The grand narratives on German militarism come from both Prussian-dominated Germany itself and from outside. It is s a very different story if you look at things from Austria or indeed from Switzerland. This was part of the point of the book. But yes, it is a story which starts within Germany itself, crystallizing in the 1860s and 1870s, the years of the so-called wars of unification. It is a positive story, it talked about success. At the same time, outsiders were very impressed. When the war of 1866 started, everyone thought the Austrians would win and, even in 1870, there were doubts about Prussia’s possibilities against the prestigious French Army. So, Prussia’s victories are an extraordinary achievement. This is how they were perceived. In the last quarter of the 19th century, you had people making this question: how were the Prussians -and by extension, their allies in the North German Confederation- so successful? Even more, other national elites outside Germany tried to understand the German military model to see what lessons they can take from it.

This quite positive narrative changes with the outcome of the two world wars of the 20th century. After 1945, the question is to understand how this awful monster was allowed to grow. From the Germans' point of view, where did things go wrong? The conservative view tries to get out the better of the framework of German militarism. During the 1950s, West German right-wingers would say the earlier trajectory of their Army’s evolution, since Frederick the Great until the Great War, was all fine, it was just conventional power politics. Hitler was the great aberration, the exceptional note of history. Of course, this viewpoint is contested by others since the 1960s, but it is a quite a usual in German common sense.

Author of "Iron and Blood", Peter Wilson.

SL: What you are implying is that the militaristic narrative was a result of the very own successes of the German Army in the second half of the 19th century, yes? 

PW: To a certain extent. The victories of 1864, 1866 and 1871 were some of the causes. But, also, there is a lot of very good work on the 19th century that has pointed out other masculine ideals. The military were not the only men being celebrated. There were also businessmen and foreign missionaries going out to Africa or Asia. So, there were various sort of ideals, but the professionalization of the Army, the martial traditions of Germany, and the militarization of German society were perceived as huge achievements, and there were great official efforts to present this as a national success. That being said, in some of the German regions, the perspective was rather different. For instance, in the Catholic south, like Bavaria, Baden or Württemberg, they tended to have a much more lukewarm saying about this narrative. In the case of the foreign perspective, it was undoubtedly introduced as a success. Latecomer states, such as Japan and Chile were fascinated by German victories. They thought they could do the same with their armies, so they brought German advisors, or they sent their own officers to German academies, hoping to learn the secrets that would enable them to achieve equivalent triumphs.

SL: Another conventional issue that you tackle is the famous Military Revolution of the Early Modern Period. Leading historians, such as Michael Roberts and Geoffrey Parker, have situated it in the 17th century, whilst you preferred to find it in an earlier moment.

PW: Indeed, I thought a period of sixty years, between the final decades of the 15th century and the earlier ones of the 16th. Roughly between the 1470s and the 1530s. It is a time periodization that serves to frame the type of explanatory models about the changes in warfare and their wider impact. A lot of the arguments that Michael Roberts and Geoffrey Parker had advanced are extraordinarily helpful in doing that. The years that they are looking at (1560–1660) show some transformations in warfare. But the crucial period of change seems to me to be rather earlier. Gunpowder weapons had been known since approximately the early 14th century. So why did it take such a long time for them to really begin to transform warfare? The key to understand this question is in the transition from the 15th to the 16th century. Around the late 1400s, developments in guns and metallurgy meant that armies gained fully effective or reasonably effective firearms for the first time. Then, the rapid proliferation of handguns and improved artillery allowed a kind of use that had a big impact in the way European armies fought and campaign. These changes are framed in a time of political disruptions that transformed the way in which wars were conducted. For the first time, there were, in very rapid succession, a whole variety of major and minor powers fighting each other in places where they would not have done it before and forming alliances that had been impossible a few decades earlier.

In the late 1400s and early 1500s, we find Catholic powers fighting the Turks, whilst everyone is fighting in Italy and in parts of Northern Europe. Consequently, medium size and big states alike hired troops and commanders in those battlegrounds, because they allegedly appeared to know how to fight and how to win. Therefore, there was an exchange of ideas, experiences, and practices of warfare. It was an extraordinary period of experimentation, worthy of being studied and revisited. However, by mid-16th century, that period of rapid change seems to ebb away. Around the 1530s, pretty much every type of fireweapon has been at least thought of. There are breech loading weapons, multiple barrel weapons or rifle weapons, but they still did not work very well, because the manufacturing techniques were not there to mass produce them, and to make them viable. So, we have basically a rather smooth firearm technology that is going to remain dominant well into the 1820s, and to some extent beyond. Since the 1530s, the pace of technological change slowed down dramatically. Regarding patterns of warfare, there were still plenty of changes going on across the ongoing centuries, but they were much more connected to the increased capacity of the state to raise larger armies and their political ambitions. So that's a different kind of explanation.


SL: I understand the technological changes, but I cannot detach them of the political and social shifts. For instance, in your book, you mentioned quite often the Swiss pikemen and the German Landsknechts. Are they the result of the rebirth of the European cities, of the bourgeoisie, or are they coming from a feudal peasantry?

PW: Most of them come from the countryside because most of the people still live in the countryside. Obviously, there was a process of urbanization in some of the areas where they were recruited, but they were predominantly rural. I think the importance of the emergence of professional infantry, such as the pikemen and the Landsknecht, is that the weaponry that they used was only effective on mass. So, there is the need to change warfare, discipline tactics and coordination. We are not talking about absolutes, but significant and yet nuanced changes, such as the dominance of mass infantry, and then also the modifications in cavalry tactics as well, which also begun to use firearms.

Certainly, these changes were backed by the evolution of European societies because they were linked to the way in which soldiers were recruited, drilled, and organized. For a period at least, the new experts, soldiers who have acquired their expertise and reputations in these wars, are trumping those who just have an aristocratic pedigree. Some of the great captains are from the minor nobility, other come from quite modest backgrounds, but managed to gain military reputation, wealth, and status with it. As in many other times in history, war did provide some social mobility.

SL: The book also deals with the habit of celebrating the Thirty Years War and the Peace of Westphalia as an absolute turning point in the history of the European states. What continuities and discontinuities do we find after 1648 that are usually misread or exaggerated?

PW: There was a shift in 1648, but it becomes more apparent in retrospect. One of the longer-term shifts, is a genuine turn towards a more sovereign international order. However, sovereignty is not really a result of Westphalia. What we find after 1648 are some changes to the imperial constitution that used to concentrate certain attributions, such as the ability to conduct foreign relations, very narrowly in the empire's elite. Changes in the imperial dynamics created certain conditions that, by late 17th century, made German princes realize, that they were facing a dilemma. Should they accept they are the Empire's aristocrats? Or are they going to engage with autonomy in international politics?

If we are interested in the emergence of sovereignty, we find it much more clearly in the early 18th century, where, for example, Brandenburg-Prussia acquired a royal title, thanks to its backing of the Austrians in the War of Spanish Succession. They are admitted to the Peace Congress in Utrecht (1713-1715). This is a most relevant moment for the Hohenzollern monarchy because it meant they secured international recognition of their title. Having a royal title means you deserve a seat at the table. The Duke of Lorraine, for example, who was a semi-sovereign, was politely shown the door, he could not attend. So, there is this sort of ordering in the Empire’s messy medieval hierarchy. States are becoming more coherent and their relationships more straightforward. But this is a long-term trend and I think it crystallizes much more in the early 18th century, when statemen and political philosophers are looking back and increasingly to understand the reasons of their failures and their successes. The tendency to sacralize the year 1648 becomes evident in the 1860s, when the earliest international relations specialists struggled to explain the emergence of the international order and the idea of sovereignty.

SL: The Holy Roman Empire is the central focus of this book. Is there some sort of marginalization of the Empire within German historiography?

PW: Yes, the Empire has had some kind of bad reputation among German historians and politicians. Of course, the Empire had many failings, they were obvious to contemporaries, and they became increasingly obvious, really, since about the 1760s. The Habsburg struggled with two major wars in the middle of the 18th century, the War of Austrian Succession, and the Seven Years' War. To a certain extent, these were imperial civil wars, given that several German princes and states fought against the emperor. What these conflicts did is to repeat the experience of the Thirty Years' War. They took place in the Age of Enlightenment, therefore, there are already quite a lot of people who are aware of the new wave of ideas, who are thinking in other terms than those of the 17th century. They started to perceive these “imperial civil wars” as signs of deep-rooted weaknesses within the Empire.

It is once the Empire collapsed with the pressures of the Napoleonic era, that the big question of what to do with the old imperial architecture came up. “Do we resurrect this? Or do we have something else?” By then, there were two major powers, Austria, and Prussia, whilst the other German states are sometimes called the “Third Germany” in a lump together. How are the German states going to be organized? This is the great “German Question” of the 19th century, a debate especially relevant after the failure of the Revolutions of 1848 and the creation of the German Confederation. On the one hand, the Austrians endorsed the Großdeutsche solution, which would have unified all the German-speaking peoples in one state. The Prussians opposed this idea and fought for the Kleindeutsche solution, succeeding in marginalizing Austria and absorbing the Third Germany under the Hohenzollern Crown.  This was the great Prussian victory of 1866 that inaugurated the modern German Reich.

Historians tend to think, that 1866 was a minor war, just six weeks. But it was a traumatic experience for many people in Central Europe. Especially, there were many South Germans who did not reconcile with the loss of the connection with Austria. To legitimize the new situation, the conventional narrative of the Prussian elites said that the old Habsburg Empire had kept Germany weak, it held it back. Prussian statemen and military establishment compared Germany’s late State-development to that of France, and later, to the global expansion of the British Empire. In their views, Germany had been kept weak and divided because of the outdated and medieval political forms of the Habsburg Empire. Germans had been victims of foreign powers, so they needed to strengthen their nation through the Army. Thus, the obsession of German-Prussian elites in surmounting this alleged “disaster” they inherited. This was a very lasting narrative. In fact, it took until the Second World War to understand that the idea of a single unitary state might have been bad. Since 1960s, there is a more positive reappraisal of the Empire amongst historians. Although there is still no consensus on that, it is now seen much more positively than in the past.


SL: About the project of the “Greater Germany” or Großdeutschland, it is impossible not to relate it to the Anschluss of 1938. Was this idea still alive in Austria by the 1930s? What were the effects of the annexation on it?

PW: There were certainly some Austrians who were on board with it, yes. Nevertheless, they did not have much to say in it once Italy had given its backing to Hitler. Ironically, the Anschluss was a socialist project to start with. In 1918, they wanted to join the Weimar Republic. Both countries, by then, had left leaning governments. In fact, the Chrisian-conservative sector was more prone to building an Austrian independent state. This changed over the years. By the 1930s, there are political tensions within Austria, due to Hitler’s outspoken policy of reuniting all the German-speaking lands and the expansion of Austrian fascist groups, bankrolled, and sponsored by the German National Socialist Party. On the other hand, besides the presence of many Nazi sympathizers within the Army, the Austrian General Staff was well aware that it had limited supply of ammunition and manpower to resist a German invasion, without external political backing. By March 1938, when the Wehrmacht invaded Austria, the Austrian military did not resist, they preferred to avoid a war. The idea of the Greater Germany might have had some traction, but, yet there was no overwhelming enthusiasm in Austria to the Anschluss. We should not be deceived by the carefully staged propaganda films, orchestrated by Nazi Germany.

SL: As many other historians, you note that, contrary to the grand narrative of the nation-en-armes, foreign military service did not disappear after 1815. How did the figure of the foreign volunteer interplay with the notion of the citizen-soldier and the Nation-state? And what similarities and what differences do you find between these modern foreign soldiers and those of the 16th or the 17th centuries?

PW: One of the things you see when you address history in a long period of time is that there are ripples, continuities, and disruptions, rather than enormous crashing tidal waves that change everything for good. In every historical process, no matter which actors or human activities we are talking about, there are elements of continuity and important changes entangled. If we look at the Early Modern armies, by and large, rulers were making total claims on their population. However, they inducted a very small number of men, due to limited state capacities and bad communications. Most of the Central European polities had some kind of selected and limited conscription, at least for a militia. In the late 18th century, the Prussians used that type of system, and the Austrians ultimately copy it.

After the Napoleonic era, there was a different sensibility. Partially, this was due to the impact of French Revolutionary ideas: the expression of the citizen with political rights linked to military service. This was a problematic notion, considering that the dominant political form was still the conservative monarchical state. Absolute monarchies were not willing to concede political enfranchisement in return for military service. Besides, most of these states suffered chronic budgetary constraints and wars were expensive, so royal ministers did not want to train and mobilize masses of politicized soldiers. They just could not afford to. At the same time, after 1815, governments were still reluctant to let their citizens or subjects serve in other countries. They rose many constraints to those men willing to enlist in foreign wars, especially if they had not fulfilled their military obligations in their own countries first.

This is a big difference with the Early Modern period. Until the late 18th century, a lot of men made a living on war, being soldier was a trade. For them, being free to fight for an honorable cause somewhere else was a right, particularly if that cause was aligned with personal interests or beliefs. Other times, especially in German lands, soldiers did not have many choices and they were just forced to enlist. In several German principalities of the Ancien Regime, military service was largely involuntary. The prince would make a contract, he would then recruit the required number of soldiers for a limited period and then come back to their homes. The Swiss worked rather different. Their contracts were more usually signed with the regimental commanders who recruited the volunteers, not with a sovereign, so there was a stronger voluntary element there.

If these forms of recruitment became rare after the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, foreign military service did not vanish completely. Deep into the 19th century, some armies that still relied in foreign mercenaries. There was the French Foreign Legion, well entrenched into the French Army, and the foreign troops raised for the Greek War of Independence, the Crimean War, and the campaigns for Italian unification. Armies in the Italian peninsula, like the Papal and the Neapolitan Army still recruited Swiss and German professional soldiers and integrated them in their military structures, until 1870. It was in Italy where a considerable shift took place. The process of the Italian Risorgimento saw the practical extinction of the foreign mercenary, at the same time, it favored the emergence of another notion of foreign fighter: the transnational volunteer. These were politicized soldiers, allegedly motivated to fight by ideological convictions.

That being said, we should be careful with endorsing such fix categories. I would say they are constructs of the time. Historians tend to slip into thinking that a lot of the people who went to serve in the Papal Army, such as the Papal Zouaves, were Catholic volunteers motivated by their faith, forgetting that these men might have also more material motivations to enlist. No doubt, there are longer term trends that were changing: the emergence of the army of citizens produced the decline of the foreign military service as it was known until 1789, but we should not exaggerate the immediacy to which things changed. If the foreign military service remained, the line that separated the mercenary from the ideological volunteer was much blurrier than what we like to admit. One must not forget that mercenaries usually had their own ideas and political preferences, whilst volunteers had also mundane necessities too. No transition in history is definitive, the old and the new are always in conflict.

SL: Across the 19th century, we have a gradual transformation in the ways European armies were recruited and mobilized, from reduced professional armies of the Ancien Regime to the mass national forces of the French Republic and its satellite states. Eventually, the very same adversaries of France, particularly Prussia, would learn to militarize their own national population too. What role did patriotism or nationalism play in this construction of the citizen-army?

PW: It is very difficult to say. If we take the Second World War, there were about twenty million Germans who were mobilized, including at least 600,000 women. However, despite all the chauvinistic propaganda of Nazi Germany, probably only one in twenty Germans or so were genuine volunteers. The rest were conscripted. That makes you think about the effectiveness of patriotism and nationalism in times of war. There is plenty of evidence to say that people believed in the nation and so forth, but whether that necessarily motivate you to go and fight, it is not certain. When we get into the area of motivation, it is very difficult to pin things down because motivation is usually a bundle of different things. In any case, nationalism or patriotism are much easier to analyze when we are looking at rhetoric and propaganda.

SL: I would like you to talk about one of the main notions in the historiography of postwar Germany: the myth of the clean Wehrmacht. As you well explained in the book, it was a general narrative that searched to deny the participation of German regular forces in Nazi war crimes, putting all the blame in the SS. Was it an exclusive German myth that searched to clean German conscience? Or were there other links with the context of the Cold War?

PW: Indeed, it was not an exclusive German invention. There were many Anglo-American historians and politicians that supported the idea of cleaning the German national forces as a condition to include West Germany into NATO. At the same time, a lot of German officers wanted to clean the Army’s reputation after the defeat and tried to make themselves useful to the Americans, to the British and to some extent the French. Part of the tacit arrangement was that those powers that were benefiting from German military expertise would endorse the myth that war crimes and politics of genocide were exclusively perpetrated by bad Nazis, whilst the good Germans in the Wehrmacht fought an honorable war. Even Eisenhower was very reluctant to concede, but he eventually had to agree with this narrative for political motives. The myth was perpetuated by an eclectic range of people. Many of them honestly believed it. Others were just trying to adapt to the new political situation. In any case, all of them wanted to leave the Nazi past behind.

SL: Was there a similar narrative in the Communist Bloc to legitimize East Germany?

PW: Of course, this happened in the Eastern countries too. For starters, it was very convenient for the government of the German Democratic Republic that most senior Nazis officials were either dead or fled. The formation of the Nationale Volksarmee (NVA), the East German armed forces, relied a lot less on former senior Wehrmacht personalities. There were some who were quite influential, but their presence was much smaller in comparison to the Bundeswehr of West Germany. In general, in the NVA, there was a serious attempt to make a much more deliberate break with the Wehrmacht past. This was partly out of necessity, because there were very few ex-Wehrmacht cadres that would cooperate with them anyway. But also, there were differences between the histories of state-building in both Germanies, in the postwar. The Democratic Republic, under strict Soviet control, was much more emphatic in its antifascist policies. If we look at the East German propaganda, all the fascists were, of course, in the West.

SL: After such an enormous effort and having studied the German-speaking peoples for so many years, would you say the history of the Holy Roman Empire is a history of a failure, or we should look at it otherwise?

PW:  question is going to depend on how you assess failure and so forth. Maybe the question is if studying the history of the Empire has any value. I think it does. Even if it is very difficult to affirm that we learned from history, we can admit it can be instructive. The Empire’s history is useful to show us how a very disparate, complex, and large collection of human communities could at least work together to some extent for so many centuries. The nation-state was not an inevitable force of history. History does not move in a deterministic way. Things could have been very different. In fact, I am very skeptical about the conceptual boarders of the nation-state. The nation-state is never ever ended. It is a political project that never stops, it is always under construction, and it is always inclusive towards their own members and exclusive to those who do not belong to it. Not everyone has the same concept of nationality and citizenship, so there are always people that the nation-state does not want to include. It is always a problem.


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