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

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Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany  
Author(s) Isabel V. Hull
Publisher Cornell University Press
Publication date 2005
Pages 400
ISBN 0801472938

In Isabel Hull’s book on military culture in late nineteenth-century Germany, she argues that militarism and institutional extremism was a central – if not the central – cultural feature. She traces the origins of the military’s influence on German society to several wars including the Franco-Prussian War, the Herero and Nama revolts in southwest Africa, the Boxer Rebellion, World War I-occupied France and Belgium, and the Turkish genocide of the Armenians. She organizes the book into three sections in order to thematically examine these historical examples. She begins with a narrative explanation of the colonial wars in southwest Africa in order to firmly ground her theory that Germany’s military culture originated in the practices and events of these engagements. In Part 2, she argues that military values ultimately penetrated German society and government because the army was somewhat insulated from political and social criticism. Germany’s social and political structure allowed the army to be isolated from external or civilian feedback. Further, she contends that the army’s “mutually reinforcing characteristics” in turn incited them to “dysfunctional extremes of violence” (2). In the third and final section, she then discusses the army’s treatment of civilians, its use of the concept of “military necessity,” and their tendency to fight even to the point of irrational self-destruction.

Hull’s account of war policy and prison camps conditions for the Herero and Nama is an interesting way to view the origins of death camp policies during Hitler’s Final Solution. These colonial wars allowed the German army to perfect and refine certain annihilationist policies that ultimately transformed into genocidal policy. Later, during World War I, in their quest for complete military victory on the battlefield, they destroyed entire swaths of French and Belgian countryside – literally leaving nothing behind but rubble. Ultimately however, the German army’s hubris and the process in which the means of violence became the end, brought about their defeat in World War I. Their lack of specific aims except for ‘immense annexation” and the idea that national power could be a good substitute for specific policy was part of the downfall.

In her conclusion, Hull makes the link between racist policy and the German’s ideological explanations for total war, in a way setting up the possible circumstances surrounding the Final Solution. She argues that racism “often appeared as a result of imperial experiences” and not as a cause (330). Often German soldiers learned to transform “vague race-thinking into racism” (330). This racism piece, along with the specific habits of military culture left a very specific legacy to National Socialism, where politics “transcended the conventional split between norms and actions by elevating the actions themselves to norms” and practicing a cult of violence as a general rule (333).

Hull’s book offers a successful treatment of its subject matter, and she argues for a new a way of thinking about German imperialism, the lead-up to World War II, and the development of racist policy. One criticism the work raises is the problem that violence has been endemic in the twentieth century, often perpetuated by governments as brutal, if not more brutal, than the Third Reich. While Hull offers a compelling case for the uniqueness of German militarism, she also raises the question of comparisons.