Iron and Blood: a military history of the German-speaking peoples since 1500


This is a hefty (913 pages!) study, which is not restricted to ‘modern’ Germany but extends to cover the military history of Switzerland and the Holy Roman/Austrian/Austro-Hungarian empires. (The author makes the point that national identity was vague until well into the 17th century: ‘Early modern Europeans had a concept of nationality, but the criteria were not firmly fixed, and the term was applied flexibly… Contemporaries divided Germany culturally and linguistically into High [south] and Low [north], with the former identified most with providing Landsknechts [mercenaries], while the latter became increasingly known for providing cavalry from the 1540s. Within High Germany, Upper Swabia was famed as the main Landsknecht recruiting ground, distinguished politically more than linguistically from Germanophone Switzerland. In practice, Low German infantry were organised no differently, and it was only following the onset of the Eighty Years War [1568-1648] that men from the Netherlands were identified more clearly and separately as Walloons or Dutch.’)

Coverage of the region’s geopolitical/strategic history is generally very good, with the chosen time frame presenting events from a different perspective to more conventional histories focusing on the supposedly inevitable rise of Prussia. As the author points out, for much of the period until 1866, Austria was the dominant Germanic power. It survived serious threats from the Ottoman Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries and repeated French aggression until 1815.

In contrast, despite Frederick the Great’s victories, Prussia came close to destruction in the Seven Years War and was temporarily reduced to the status of a minor German state by Napoleon in the aftermath of its crushing defeat at Jena–Auerstedt in 1806. (Ironically, Austria’s 19th-century expansion into the Balkans proved to be a significant weakness, as it led to a situation in which 28% of the army were German-speaking Austrians, 44% were Slavs, and 18% Hungarians, with Romanians and Italians comprising 8% and 2% respectively. There were a host of ‘official’ army languages – German, Hungarian, Italian, Romanian, Czech, Slovak, Serbo-Croat, Slovene, Polish, and Ruthenian [Ukrainian]. The only commonality was a list of 80 German words of command and an unofficial ‘Army Slav’ dialect. Command and control were difficult enough, but most seriously, in 1914, the Slav units’ loyalty would prove to be highly suspect when facing their fellow Slavs in the Russian and Serbian armies.)

The myth of Prussian genius

The spectacular victories of 1866 and 1870 gave rise to a widely accepted myth of the Prussian ‘genius for war’. The generals of the new Second Reich became so fixated on maintaining the prestige won by these victories that they adopted a dangerous ‘tunnel-vision’ focusing on purely military planning in the belief that Germany faced encirclement by implacable enemies whilst ignoring the political and geostrategic factors that had led to this situation.

Such planning simply made matters worse, leading to the Schlieffen Plan, which in its original form casually added to Germany’s enemies by incorporating invasions of neutral Holland and Belgium. Even the modified Schlieffen Plan of 1914 retained the invasion of Belgium, which was arguably the decisive factor in transforming Britain from a potential to an outright enemy.

right Frederick the Great, King of Prussia 1740-1786, in an 1870 portrait by Wilhelm Camphausen. Despite his victories, Prussia came close to destruction in the Seven Years War and during the Napoleonic era.
Frederick the Great, King of Prussia 1740-1786, in an 1870 portrait by Wilhelm Camphausen. Despite his victories, Prussia came close to destruction in the Seven Years War and during the Napoleonic era. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Disappointingly, discussion of the strategic options in German war planning in both 1914 and 1939 is largely confined to generalities rather than detailed analyses. For example, there is no real analysis of the feasibility of the Schlieffen Plan, or of the increasing threat to German oil supplies posed by Soviet expansion into eastern Europe in the aftermath of the 1939 Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact.

Another weakness is the prevalence of errors in describing weapon systems, such as the Type XXI and Type XXIII U-boats: ‘…it was not until July 1943 that new construction concentrated on two new types: larger diesel vessels for the Atlantic, and smaller electric boats for the Mediterranean and Baltic.’ These were diesel/electric submarines – it may well be that the mistake is down to a misunderstanding of the term Elektroboot, which was applied to both types.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case – when discussing the equipment of the post-war Luftwaffe, the author notes: ‘The new Luftwaffe only reached target strength in the 1960s when it was plunged into crisis by the adoption of the new Lockheed F104 Starfighter multirole combat plane… Essentially a rocket tube with short wings, this swiftly became known as the “Widow Maker” as 292 of the 912 in service crashed, killing 116 pilots by 1972.’

In fact, the type was powered by the General Electric J79 turbojet. Whilst such errors may seem minor, their cumulative effect does tend to undermine confidence and to lead to at least a subconscious questioning of statements elsewhere.

On the other hand, there are plenty of ‘hidden gems’ throughout the book, which will be new to many readers – a diverse range of information from right across the period, ranging from the Emperor Charles V’s narrow escape during the bombardment of Ingolstadt in 1546 to the frantic disposal of obsolescent East German equipment following German reunification in 1990, when light machine-guns were sold for as little as $60 and light missile attack craft went for $200,000.

The detailed coverage of the post-1945 period is a relative rarity in the English language – it is a shock to realise that the ‘post-1990 reunified Germany has now existed for almost three times as long as the Third Reich, while the entire, largely peaceful era since 1945 is longer than that between 1870 and 1945’.

The author compares the West German, East German, and Austrian experience of rebuilding their armed forces with the reintroduction of differing systems of conscription, and examines their struggles to balance the issues of adequately training large numbers of short-service conscripts whilst funding ever-more-costly weaponry.

Just as the worst of these problems were resolved, the Cold War ended, posing entirely new challenges as German reunification was swiftly followed by a revolution in military technology and the demands of ‘out of area’ asymmetric warfare in places such as Afghanistan.

Although this study is not light reading in any sense of the term, anyone who does persevere will be amply rewarded.

Iron and Blood: a military history of the German-speaking peoples since 1500
Peter H Wilson
Allen Lane, hbk (£40)
ISBN 978-0241355565