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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 ass 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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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 ass 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.

30 review for Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany

  1. 4 out of 5

    Michael Kleen

    Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany by Isabel Hull is a problematic and contradictory book. It is a good example of what happens when a historian begins with a thesis and then shoehorns data to fit that thesis. Hull’s core argument is that the Imperial German military (between the years 1904 and 1918) practiced institutional extremism, which led to the unchecked extermination of civilian populations in Africa and Europe. The unlimited application o Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany by Isabel Hull is a problematic and contradictory book. It is a good example of what happens when a historian begins with a thesis and then shoehorns data to fit that thesis. Hull’s core argument is that the Imperial German military (between the years 1904 and 1918) practiced institutional extremism, which led to the unchecked extermination of civilian populations in Africa and Europe. The unlimited application of violence defined that extremism. This made the German military unique among the militaries of other European powers. She set out to show, “how and why the institution designed to wield controlled violence exceeded the reasonable, effective, or goal-oriented limits of its use.” According to Hull, there were three reasons the use of violence appeared unchecked: the German military’s separation from civilian institutions, the use of violence through “quasi-automatic mechanisms,” and an institutional gravitation toward total solutions―“the establishment of perfect order and complete obedience by the enemy population” in a permanent form. To prove her thesis, Hull examined the behavior of the German military in Southwest Africa (present day Namibia), German military culture, and the behavior of the German military during the First World War. She drew from a large number of German sources and personal letters, as well as the philosophy of Hannah Arendt. To characterize the behavior of the German military during this period, Hull chose the 1903 Herero uprising in Southwest Africa. After the Herero tribe rose up against German colonial rule, Kaiser Wilhelm gave Lt. General Lothar von Trotha absolute authority to put down the rebellion. Free from civilian restraints, von Trotha prosecuted the war according to conventional German military tradition and demanded the complete submission of the Herero; an expectation for victory that was “unreasonably high,” according to Hull. Lt. General von Trotha’s plan for complete victory over the Herero in one single battle failed, so he ordered a long and painful pursuit of the survivors into the desert. Prisoners of war were interned in camps where they were treated inhumanely. Because the idea of a "knock out blow" was so entrenched in German military thinking, Hull argues, the German military was logistically unprepared for a long war, leading it to exploit the resources of occupied territories. Lack of long term planning led to improvised tactics to subdue the enemy population. The military employed violence as a short-term solution, often taking the form of prison camps for civilians that lacked basic supplies. This gap between the goal of total victory and lack of preparation was a fatal flaw in German strategy. “This gap is so great that failure seems, in retrospect, to have been preprogrammed,” she argued. Missing from this analysis is a comparison with other colonial powers during the period. Was the German military’s treatment of the Herero any more brutal than British or French responses to colonial uprisings? How do we know the Herero uprising wouldn’t have dragged on longer if the German military had been more restrained? How did the distance between Germany and its African colony affect military logistics? The answer to any of these questions could seriously undermine Hull’s argument. Contradictions also plague this book. For example, Hull claimed Germany entered the First World War without war aims, and then went on to dismiss the war aims given by the German government as “unattainable” and “a negative goal.” Aside from the fact that preservation of a nation, territorial ambition, or defeat of a powerful rival have long been used as legitimate war aims, you cannot claim something does not exist and then criticize it. In another example, she undermined her notion that the German military went unchecked by civilian institutions when she described how the German General Staff’s plan for a “final struggle” (endkampf), which was never carried out, “had to be stopped by external intervention, from the cabinet, the Reichstag, and popular revolt.” If civilian institutions stopped the German General Staff’s plan for a “final struggle,” how was it operating “unchecked”? Isabel Hull failed to provide convincing evidence that the unlimited application of violence was unique to the German military during the period. Furthermore, her characterization of the German General Staff as robotically adhering to doctrine regardless of effectiveness during the First World War disregarded the success and ingenuity of German tactics in the face of unfavorable numerical odds. For a much better analysis of German military culture and the German General Staff, I recommend Trevor N. Dupuy’s A Genius For War: The German Army and General Staff, 1807-1945.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Matt

    This was largely a solid history with a thesis about continuities in German military culture that led to its practices in WWI. I generally agree with her thesis, although some of her evidence is weak and I felt on some matters she wasn’t entirely up to date on (when discussing the Allies she quotes on Tim Travers who occupies one extreme of the ‘learning curve’ and Haig debates) and her comparisons to the Allies tend to be a bit weak (and mainly in the end), as even she herself states that no on This was largely a solid history with a thesis about continuities in German military culture that led to its practices in WWI. I generally agree with her thesis, although some of her evidence is weak and I felt on some matters she wasn’t entirely up to date on (when discussing the Allies she quotes on Tim Travers who occupies one extreme of the ‘learning curve’ and Haig debates) and her comparisons to the Allies tend to be a bit weak (and mainly in the end), as even she herself states that no one had really looked at the military culture of the Allies. Part one, about the Herero and Nama Genocide is especially important, easily the strongest part of the book. I don’t agree that she had a thesis first and tried to fit evidence to it, as one other reviewer stated, but I do feel that her evidence wasn’t always the strongest.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Mike

    Great work -- should be required reading for military historians, or historians in general, and frankly, I think this book should be studied by military officers, certainly those in high command positions, and politicians with a voice in military matters. Great study of military culture in general, but argues for how in Imperial Germany, institutional inertia resulting from particular socio-political factors (including an important study of colonialism in Africa) created a military culture that Great work -- should be required reading for military historians, or historians in general, and frankly, I think this book should be studied by military officers, certainly those in high command positions, and politicians with a voice in military matters. Great study of military culture in general, but argues for how in Imperial Germany, institutional inertia resulting from particular socio-political factors (including an important study of colonialism in Africa) created a military culture that tended toward radical excesses of violence, including mass atrocity and self-destruction, culminating in WW1. Incredibly relevant in 2020 as well. This one isn't just a very good book, its a very important one.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Joseph Stieb

    Isabel Hull uses Part 1 of her book on military culture in the Imperial German Army to show their military culture in practice in the colony of Southwest Africa (SWA). Hull describes the German response to the Herero Revolts from 1904-1907 as escalating towards genocide because of German military culture. In the rebellion’s early stages, the Germans failed to achieve their institutional concept of victory, defined as a total and decisive crushing of the opponent by military means, or Vernichtung Isabel Hull uses Part 1 of her book on military culture in the Imperial German Army to show their military culture in practice in the colony of Southwest Africa (SWA). Hull describes the German response to the Herero Revolts from 1904-1907 as escalating towards genocide because of German military culture. In the rebellion’s early stages, the Germans failed to achieve their institutional concept of victory, defined as a total and decisive crushing of the opponent by military means, or Vernichtungssieg. Although the Herero resistance was essentially broken, the failure to achieve Vernichtungssieg meant from the German perspective that the Herero still viewed them as weak, which would encourage further rebellion. This mentality led the Germans to rapidly escalate their methods from battle to a host of increasingly violent practices: pursuit of the entire Herero population into the desert, massacres, prisoner abuse, and deliberate starvation. Hull emphasizes that these practices actually preceded the orders of SWA’s military governor to exterminate the Herero, showing how military culture “set the expectations…that suffused operations” (91). After providing a sense of German military culture in action in Part 1, in Part 2 Hull more thoroughly identifies the origins and major traits of German military culture. Hull argues that German military culture emerged from the social and political position of the German Army. The Army had virtually no oversight from civilian authorities, no structural obligation to coordinate policy with civilian agencies like the Foreign Office, and a privileged social status as a symbol of the nation. Consequently, the Army leadership tended to focus on purely military concerns at the expense of broader political goals and reflexively respond to setbacks by simply escalating the use of violence, even to the point of inhumane and/or counterproductive policies. In addition, Hull shows how German military culture influenced doctrine. For instance, the Schlieffen Plan reflected military cultural values such as the narrow focus on military factors over a broader political context, an even narrower focus on operations and tactics, the pursuit of total annihilation of enemy forces, the view that all wars were existential conflicts, and the obsession with the offensive. In Part 3, Hull discusses how German military culture shaped German strategy and occupation policy during World War I. She argues that military culture led the German Army to pursue strategies were needlessly wasteful and ignorant of broader political factors. For example, she notes that in the all-out offensive of March 1918 the strategic reality of German exhaustion was trumped by the military culture’s faith in the superior willpower of their soldiers, emphasis on technical solutions such as wonder weapons, and bias for the offensive. Furthermore, Hull finds that military culture pushed occupational policies towards the “instrumentalizing of the civilian population” because Germans held that civilians in occupied territory owed absolute obedience to the occupying authority, could be used for labor and resources in the name of military necessity, and could be violently suppressed at the first sign of resistance (248). Hull’s thesis is that military culture best explains why the German Army consistently moved towards extremes in these conflicts. One crucial implication of this argument is that a military’s “doctrines, habits, and basic assumptions (the military culture)” may be enough to generate atrocities without serious ideological motivations like racism (324). The fact that Germans pursued similar scripts of violence against a racial other in Africa and white Belgians in Europe supports her claim that military culture was the essential cause of radicalization. Hull, a senior German historian at Cornell University, successfully supports her argument. She uses an impressive set of mostly German sources, including communiqués, personal accounts, and government reports. The utility of her choice to use military culture to analyze the German army is that it allows her to look at conscious doctrines and practices and the unexamined assumptions underlying those elements. The fact that German soldiers and officers reacted to different conflicts with highly similar mentalities and practices strongly suggests a pervasive military culture. Furthermore, she bolsters her argument by comparing the German Army to the British Army. She shows that the British Army shared many of the practices and assumptions of German military culture. Nevertheless, civilian oversight of the military often prevented the British Army’s behavior from spiraling into extreme violence, as exemplified by the amelioration of Britain’s harshest policies in the Boer War. Overall, Hull gives historians an innovative way to understand military atrocities and an excellent account of the power of military culture to shape and ultimately warp the practices of warfare. This is a profoundly interesting and messed-up book.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Jessica Injejikian

    Absolute Destruction is the most compelling work I have read about military practice, which typically bores me to tears. Hull unexpectedly relies on some anthropological/sociological concepts to support her work, which I found fascinating. Her writing style kept me involved; she is the only historian I have seen utilize lists throughout their work for brevity and clarity. Hull is extremely concise, yet her thesis is well supported. Her writing style should be looked to as a historical standard, Absolute Destruction is the most compelling work I have read about military practice, which typically bores me to tears. Hull unexpectedly relies on some anthropological/sociological concepts to support her work, which I found fascinating. Her writing style kept me involved; she is the only historian I have seen utilize lists throughout their work for brevity and clarity. Hull is extremely concise, yet her thesis is well supported. Her writing style should be looked to as a historical standard, IMO.

  6. 5 out of 5

    morning Os

    She gives a nice framework and a new angle to explain what people vaguely stereotype about German soldiers. It is interesting because her argument (especially the implicit stickiness of "German" military culture) is politically sensitive. I do not buy her clear distinction of 'culture' from ideologies. Overall the argument is theory-driven, and I see how (sociological) theories could be helpful in forming a new historical narrative.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Sam Schulman

    A little dry - but one of those wonderful books that show that what everyone says, but can't be true, is true - in this case, that the Imperial German army was unusually bloodthirsty and cruel, even by white male standards, and that the colonial wars in SW Africa predicted the Hun and the Nazi, and their toleration by bien-pensant German civilian opinion.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Jur

    A look at the German army and how it's experiences in South Western Africa and the primacy of military reasoning resulted in brutal behaviour by German forces in WWI and disregard for the needs of the civilian population at home.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Alina

    Too dull. It took an interesting topic and dissected it so much that it became too stretched out

  10. 5 out of 5

    Bridget

    More to follow...

  11. 4 out of 5

    Wesley

    A very interesting take on Germany before and during the First World War. Highly Recommended.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Aaron

    Appreciably forceful, but ultimately reductionist, argument.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Sydney Preston

  14. 4 out of 5

    Lisa Shearer

  15. 5 out of 5

    Joe

  16. 5 out of 5

    Nicole Johnson

  17. 5 out of 5

    Jack D. Riner

  18. 4 out of 5

    Tim Brown

  19. 5 out of 5

    Kyle

  20. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer

  21. 4 out of 5

    Razvanciobanu

  22. 4 out of 5

    Paul

  23. 4 out of 5

    BC

  24. 4 out of 5

    Nicholas Lyell

  25. 5 out of 5

    Iliana

  26. 4 out of 5

    Derek McSwain

  27. 5 out of 5

    Josh

  28. 5 out of 5

    Kelly Grotke

  29. 5 out of 5

    Christina

  30. 4 out of 5

    Hip Librarian

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