Warlike nations?

A discussion of whether certain nations' soldiers are "natural-born soldiers" elsewhere inspired this post, in which I express my opinion only. The topic deserves a blog post, not just a long comment at another blog (several times of that blog's original text length...).

The topic is whether Germans were natural-born soldiers or especially warlike people in 19th/20th century.

My opinion:

The performance of German ground forces in the world wars wasn't due to the nation being especially "warlike" or similar.

War has become unpopular in Germany at the latest around the time of the 30 years war (mid 17th century). Even Prussia's kings had a tough job in regard to warfare; desertion rates were always high in their armies.

The rise of nationalism during the French hegemony of the Napoleonic age changed that a little (there were even volunteer formations in around 1813-1815), but nationalist feelings got badly mauled in the failed 1848/49 revolution(s). There were several aristocratic-conservative trends in policy that strangled the nationalist idea - and there had always been little enthusiasm about fighting for the mini states.

The Prussian military made great steps forward in regard to the art of war, training and leadership at that time - Clausewitz, Moltke the Elder, Auftragstaktik...
Meanwhile the population turned from a mostly rural population in great part to a poorly fed, unhealthy industrial worker population.

The 1870/71 war unified Germany due to the trickery of Bismarck and created new nationalism.

In stark contrast, much of the nation (especially lower classes) was turning left and began to praise socialist worker unity ideology, including internationalism. The German parliament refused substantial army strength increases in response to the enormous unilateral French army size increases till 1912 (when an arms race broke out in all of Europe).

The 1914 outbreak of war was cheered by a population that hadn't experienced war for almost two generations and which expected a short and victorious war - like populations cheered elsewhere as well.
There's still a prejudice that Germans were especially militaristic at that time - despite having fought only in less than half a dozen small wars during a time when the British had dozens of small wars. Maybe they (more accurately: the middle and upper classes) were militaristic - but they were certainly not more militaristic than the people of other Great Powers of that time.

WWI was the last great charge of the old, aristocratic regime. The old regime broke in 1918 and the democratic and moderate left elements of society struggling with the legacy of a lost war, obviously being unable to quickly return to better pre-war times under such conditions.

The army performance in the First World War was not the result of a warlike population, but the result of army officer & NCO corps competence and industrial capacity and competence. Germany was the leading physics, chemistry and I think 2nd steel production country of the world in 1914.

(Ideas about national traits that would supposedly influence their warfare prowess were especially dangerous at that time; the idea that French soldiers were especially ferocious on the attack lead to a near-suicidal belief of the French army in its offensive tactics.)

The Hitler regime knew about the desire and love for peace among Germans and feigned to be alike - not only to fool foreigners, but also to fool Germans. It was necessary propaganda. There was no cheering when war broke out again - the Nazis even faked to be on the defence with a false flag action.

The German army again showed its great prowess in WW2, defeating numerous other armies and badly mauling others in the process. Again, this was the result of leadership competence, a strong R&D base and a strong economy (this time exploiting much of the occupied countries' economic capacities as well).

After '45 the Germans were completely fed up with war. WW2 destroyed about 80% of German urban housing and ended in total loss of sovereignty and even unity. Their country was physically and legally destroyed and well, the reason was warfare.

The post-WW2 conservative Adenauer government (Western Germany) wanted to gain more freedom of action (less policy restrictions imposed by occupation powers) and external security (against the Soviet Union) by aligning closely with the West. It followed a course of reconciliation and cooperation with France and being a de-facto vassal of the U.S. at the same time. It needed an army to be valuable and promised 12 divisions for the defence of Western Europe.
Most Western Germans were fed up with the right wing affiliation with the military & with war in general. They resisted this rearmament, but the government proceeded with rearmament and even conscription against a popular majority. Their economic policy was successful enough to keep them in power, though.

Western Germans lived for decades in the strong assumption that WW3 would certainly kill them. Either the enemy would kill them or the allies (UK and U.S. nukes were regularly used on German soil in NATO exercises and most army and air force exercise ended with "it's over, the enemy nuked us").

So yeah, no enthusiasm for war. Then came the end of the Cold War.

German politicians proceeded with a salami slice tactic for so-called "out of area" missions of German troops, one step at a time. It began with a field hospital in Cambodia, then logistical support troops in a safe place in Northern Somalia and so on. Peacekeepers here, peacekeepers there, finally some purely anti-radar missions of Tornados in the 1999 Kosovo Air War and then more peacekeeping in Afghanistan coupled with up to 100 commando soldiers on AQ hunt.

Well, now we're in the stupid business of small wars - with a strong popular majority rejecting this policy and at the same time re-electing the conservatives for domestic policy reasons.

The motivation for going to war is marginal.

It would be foolish to conclude that the German forces were no useful addition to NATO because of low morale, though:
The motivation for going to war is no constant.
I am convinced that given a real threat (like an invader), the motivation would be high enough - and the performance would again depend on institutional competence of the armed services and on the support of the again impressive (in real and absolute terms) economy.

The whole idea of "warlike tribe", warlike nation" and so on is very misleading in my opinion. It's a curtain that conceals the more complicated origins of military prowess - and this curtain tells nothing about the origins.



  1. A friend from Swabia once said to me, "The Germans are dreamers", which said a lot.

    The possibility of death in battle has to offer the serving soldier a commonly understood meaning to his or her sacrifice. It's communal, as in Clausewitzian moral cohesion in terms of what I describe as his theory of political development.

    In the wars that offered "an idea" or a "profound sense of meaning to death in battle" or simply were able to tap into a belief system that could drive large numbers of people to commit themselves to national ideals . . . thinking now especially of WWI . . .

    Consider all those French churches with the little marble plaques inside, the mass of them from during the war, names and dates, only to thin out to nothing by the 1930s. What that represents in terms of a revolution in belief systems . . .

    Today in the West every soldier expects to come home, to sit around the fire in old age telling the young of their adventures . . . No one really considers his or her own demise. Death would be a tragedy, a horrible loss, a thing of sorrow only. To understand what I am talking about you have to consider what our grandparents, or rather the people living in 1909 thought.

    Then the difference would be quite clear.

  2. A german sociologist wrote something interesting about this - Söhne und Weltmacht. Terror im Aufstieg und Fall der Nationen.

    You can find the book here:

    It explains why today germans are peaceful and can not behave in any way "warlike". And why other previously quiet ethnical groups are now " warlike".

    About military prowess - it's just a matter of competence as you demonstrated above.

  3. I have always thought of the Germanic people and their modern descendants as having some sort of natural predisposition to waging war/ developing warrior culture. Their constant battling with each other during the migration period, their displacing of Celts, and their refusal to submit to the Romans are just a few examples of their war like nature. The Romans noted that the Germanic tribes were larger and more physically hardened then the Celts, a tough and violent culture well known for its own warlike nature.

    Arminius' unification of several tribes to defeat the Romans at Teutoburg forest effectively ended Roman expansion east of the Rhine. I can't think of any other tribe/ethnic group that managed such a resistance against such a great empire, again suggesting the Germanic people's warlike will and intensity in times of despair appear to be on a different level than the rest of humanity. Once the number of Roman cohorts began to decline, the Germanic tribes fought amongst each other again before ultimately overwhelming the weakened Roman capitol, setting the stage for modern Europe and medieval warfare. Speaking of the dwindling presence of legions of soldiers, that was previously the primary tactic for defeating the war-like Germanic 'barbarians' as they were called, Rome would just throw cohort after cohort at them until they were just too exhausted to fight. Without numerical superiority, the Roman war machine would have ground to a halt shortly after it started steamrolling west into Germania.

  4. Fast forward to modern times with the outbreak of WWI with Germans as the aggressors yet again. Despite being the ''war to end all wars', Germany's warlike nature once again initiated massive warfare on a global scale which in my opinion could have been a Nazi victory had Hitler listened to the advice of his skilled military advisors that were clearly better at waging warfare than any other nation at the time. Just look at any occupation of a single country today by another nation, it is always a complete failure...... it is my belief that the warlike nature of the German people is what allowed them to invade and successfully occupy a number of countries all at the same time. The mighty USSR and USA cannot even manage one or two at a time. The military masterpiece that was the Wehrmacht's rear guard retreat after the failure of Operation Barbarossa on the eastern front as well as the heroics displayed by the 6th army at the siege of Stalingrad could only be carried out by a people bred for combat with an innate desire to fight. Stalingrad was a frozen hell hole on earth, but the fighting will of the average German soldier enabled them to tough it out in a way I don't think would be possible for any other nation or ethnic group.

    The German people today might not exhibit warlike tendencies, but I believe 70 years of social conditioning is no match for thousands of years of evolving to be some of the fiercest warriors of the ancient and modern world. If a war were to unfortunately occur in present day Europe right now, I doubt the German people would sit back passively and watch..... I think it would be in their nature to carry on the tradition of their Germanic ancestors and fiercely resist as the warrior like people they have always been. The overall tone of your article suggests shame at being labeled a natural born soldier or warrior, but that is actually a trait of the German people that I personally find admirable. Not that I am a proponent of senseless violence, but I do have tremendous respect for warriors and their willingness to sacrifice so much and to do it all so bravely. I am a German American and wish I had half the warrior mentality of true Germans (to be used only in times of war of course, not in every day life as the German people of today have demonstrated they are perfectly capable of). I believe the high intelligence of the German people in conjunction with their tendency to be warlike is what makes them somewhat of a 'noble savage' in my mind. War has been a constant part of life since the dawn of humanity, I don't view having a war like nature as something negative if the majority of a people's existence has been spent waging war and defending territory. It is precisely that way of living, that ability to adapt to anything and everything that made the German people the advanced nation and people that they are today.

    1. I disagree on several accounts, no9tably about the importance of the battle in the Teutoburg forest. Newer research has uncovered several later major Roman expeditions to the North.
      Southern Germanic tribes were subjugated permanently.

      The Picts were similarly successful at stopping the Roman advance, and the Parthians were equals in field battles.
      The Roman empire didn't expand further to the north because the cost/benefit ratio did not justify it. The Northern countries weren't rich in tradeable goods and difficult to police (as are most areas without roads and with insufficient waterways). It was cheaper to trade at a secured border than to occupy.