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The Military in Politics and Society in France and Germany in the 20th Century Review


Two of the three greatest continental European armies of the 20th century are the French and German militaries, and they represent an enlightening comparison because few militaries were both so similar and yet also so different. Mass conscript armies possessed by continental states and geared against each other, France and Germany nevertheless were dramatically divided by ideology, social structure, and organization. The subject of the two and their comparison, and their political and social aspect - both how society influenced them and their relationship to society - are the subject of the brief primer book, The Military in Politics and Society in France and Germany in the Twentieth Century written by a variety of authors and edited by Klaus-Jürgen Müller. This is a generally quite good book, very thoughtful and with a wide range of interesting contributions, although it is let down by an innaccurate title and some less than stellar chapters.

French and German soldiers fighting in 1914

French and German soldiers fighting in 1914

The first chapter, "The Military, Politics and Society in France and Germany" by Klaus-Jürgen Müller, provides an introduction into the subject by establishing a framework of comparison about the differences and similarities in the two nations' militaries between 1871 and 1945, in their historical experience, traditions, self-image, and role in the nation. From this, focus goes onto methodological elements of the cultural history of the officer corps, the social changes in the two countries, economic and industrial development, and ideological revolution, factors which played a tremendous role with the militaries. Both in France and Germany the military was disassociated from direct politics, a legacy of historical traditions, and which influenced them heavily at crises in 1944 in Germany and 1961 in France. Social changes of democratization, bureaucratization, and civil society played their role. Economic development meant that the military had to be increasingly oriented into the nation, in order to sustain modern war. And ideology caused both militaries to focus on anti-communism, defining their role in the state.

Chapter 2, "The Military and Society in France and Germany Between 1870 and 1914" is focused on the sociological component of the military, covering how the French and German armies conceived themselves - the French army as the nation in arms and drawing on French Revolutionary heritage, but with a troubled up-and-down of national interest and affiliation with the military. Germany by contrast had a definite military caste of the Junker aristocrats, and the military was removed properly speaking from full civilian control. It had much greater state-backed prestige and control in society than the French equivalent, while German socialists were not interested in the same nation in arms ideology promoted by the French to nearly the same extent.

Chapter 3, "The Military Elites in Germany since 1870: Comparisons and Contrasts with the French Officer Corps" examines the trends of professionalism and the relationship of the French army to authority in France, and political control and formation of military elites. In contrast to the state attempting to enforce control over the military, in Germany the military was the state and its embodiment, and the chapter goes into great length about the efforts of the state to protect the Junker military aristocracy from the rising tide of democratization and social liberalization in Germany as a bastion of the monarchy, through sidelining ostensibly mandatory educational requirements. The German army also kept out Jews, and during the Nazi period it adapted to Nazi principles of soldiering and war, with horrific effects from its war crimes in occupied territories.

Chapter 4, "Navy and Politics in Germany and France in the Twentieth Century" starts off by looking at the French and German perspectives on each other in naval terms before WW1 - where thy were all but non-existant, as both sides ignored each other's naval strength. It was only after the war that there was more important interactions between the French and Germans, as the German navy was dramatically cut back and the French navy was grana, but the difficulty of facinlling the North Sea, but the difficulty of facing both the Italian and German fleet now existed.

Chapter 5, "The Military and the Military-Political Breakdown in Germany 1918 and France 1940" compares the French and German militaries' role in the political component of defeat in 1918 and 1940 respectively. Both had similarities and differences, with very different roles in the nation standing out and the subject of the chapter, showing the limited prestige and influence of the French military in the decades leading up to WW2, in contrast to the privileged German military. Both faced unexpected wars and suffered complete military defeat, and a variety of responses emerged among officers, who had to juggle the contradictions of, in Germany, serving a regime they opposed, and in France, reconciling serving Vichy and preparing for resistance and revenge against Germany.

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Chapter 6, "Military and Diplomacy in France and Germany in the Inter-war Period" pays attention to the German military's effort to promote rearmament and revision of the Versailles treaty, which reached its height with Hitler's rearmament, which the chapter insists was driven by the military, but whose logic of running roughshod over economic potential and undermining the foreign department's influence led to the army to itself become marginalized and subjugated entirely by Hitler. In France, the military had more complete control over military planning and defense organization in the 1920s, and would continue to cooperate with politicians in the 1930s, but faced inherent contradictions in French military and diplomatic interests.

Chapter 7, "The army as an Occupying Power: The German Army in 1940-1944, the French Army in 1945-1949" provides an institutional overview of the organization of the German Occupation of France, before moving onto French occupation policy in Germany after the war, writing that much of the positive elements of French attempts at democratization and cultural policy in Germany have been ignored due to the natural post-war hardships in Germany and the excessive numbers of French soldiers in the country. Like the Germans the French faced internal administrative and hierarchy problems which were problematic for their administration.

If not for a misleading title, this book would be a very excellent, work. Despite being titled as being about the French and German militaries during the 20th century, it actually covers the period of 1871 to a vague cut off date somewhere around 1945 - with hazy references to continued French colonial war after this point, but nothing of substantial import. Other than this, it provides a very insightful work which does a good job in defining the differences and similarities which united and divided France and Germany's military outlooks, and has a very strong social perspective in showing the components and make-up of the two armies. The initial two chapters in this regard are very interesting, providing a good look into the ideology of the two nations' armies and the education and formation of the military elites.

Unfortunately the section on the navies in the two countries is very disappointing. both the French and German navies had surprisingly outsized roles in the political evolution of their countries, as the German navy was responsible for the outbreak of the German Revolution in 1918, and the French Navy assumed a vital political and leadership role in France following the defeat in 1940. The German Navy, as the chapter on it points out, defined itself by its opposition to the Royal Navy, while the French Navy has often received commentary for its anti-British sentiments. Both had a notably conservative upper officer corps, with the French Navy being perceived as monarchist and highly conservative, while the German Navy was the least Nazified of the German military branches, even if the submarine force would become much more Nazified than other elements of the navy. And yet there is next to no commentary on these developments and why they occurred, and the book only looks at a shallow picture of how the two navies perceived each other and international relations and political developments occasioned by the two's buildups and their strategies. It is exceedingly unfortunate that more effort was not put into a wider analysis of the navies' role in the political and social system of the two countries.

There is similarly nothing about the air forces in either country, which could have been very interesting to compare their development and internal ideology to the army and navy. Nor is there anything about the internal maintenance of order, where interesting papers have been written - although perhaps after the date of this book - about how the French and German militaries perceived their response to the problem of maintaining internal order differently, with the French military viewing a repeat of the Paris Commune as a nightmarish occurrence that would be a worst-case scenario and to be avoided, while the German military perceived it as a reasonable event to be planned for. But of course, there are only so many things which can be included in such a relatively petite book.

Overall, this is an excellent and rather insightful work on a limited period of time, which tends to give quite a lot of food for thought. Its flaws are that it is inaccurately titled, and that some of the chapters fail to incorporate a social element into a book which is about both the political, and social, side of the militaries of France and Germany. These two flaws undermine what is otherwise very good, but it still is a book which deserves to be read to give a book which isn't really an introduction - it isn't by any extent an exhaustive cover of either France nor Germany - but more in the way of a primer, which helps to solidify certain principles and to give new ideas to this freshly organized space.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Ryan C Thomas

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