Front Page Titles (by Subject) 3.: The Prussian Army - Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
3.: The Prussian Army - Ludwig von Mises, Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War 
Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War, edited with a Foreword by Bettina Bien Greaves (Indianapolis: Indiana, 2011).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
The Prussian Army
The Prussian Army which fought in the battles of Leipzig and Waterloo was very different from the army which Frederick William I had organized and which Frederick II had commanded in three great wars. That old army of Prussia had been smashed and destroyed in the campaign of 1806 and never revived.
The Prussian Army of the eighteenth century was composed of men pressed into service, brutally drilled by flogging, and held together by a barbaric discipline. They were mainly foreigners. The kings preferred foreigners to their own subjects. They believed that their subjects could be more useful to the country when working and paying taxes than when serving in the armed forces. In 1742 Frederick II set as his goal that the infantry should consist of two thirds foreigners and one third natives. Deserters from foreign armies, prisoners of war, criminals, vagabonds, tramps, and people whom the crimps had entrapped by fraud and violence were the bulk of the regiments. These soldiers were prepared to profit by every opportunity for escape. Prevention of desertion was therefore the main concern of the conduct of military affairs. Frederick II begins his main treatise of strategy, his General Principles of Warfare, with the exposition of fourteen rules on how to hinder desertion. Tactical and even strategical considerations had to be subordinated to the prevention of desertion. The troops could only be employed when tightly assembled together. Patrols could not be sent out. Strategical pursuit of a defeated enemy force was impossible. Marching or attacking at night and camping near forests were strictly avoided. The soldiers were ordered to watch each other constantly, both in war and in peace. Civilians were obliged by the threat of the heaviest penalties to bar the way to deserters, to catch them, and deliver them to the army.
The commissioned officers of this army were as a rule noblemen. Among them, too, were many foreigners; but the greater number belonged to the Prussian Junker class.1 Frederick II repeats again and again in his writings that commoners are not fit for commissions because their minds are directed toward profit, not honor. Although a military career was very profitable, as the commander of a company drew a comparatively high income, a great part of the landed aristocracy objected to the military profession for their sons. The kings used to send out policemen to kidnap the sons of noble landowners and put them into their military schools. The education provided by these schools was hardly more than that of an elementary school. Men with higher education were very rare in the ranks of Prussian commissioned officers.*
Such an army could fight and—under an able commander—conquer only as long as it encountered armies of a similar structure. It scattered like chaff when it had to fight the forces of Napoleon.
The armies of the French Revolution and of the first Empire were recruited from the people. They were armies of free men, not of crimped scum. Their commanders did not fear desertion. They could therefore abandon the traditional tactics of moving forward in deployed lines and of firing volleys without taking aim. They could adopt a new method of combat, that is, fighting in columns and skirmishing. The new structure of the army brought first a new tactic and then a new strategy. Against these the old Prussian Army proved impotent.
The French pattern served as a model for the organization of the Prussian Army in the years 1808–13. It was built upon the principle of compulsory service of all men physically fit. The new army stood the test in the wars of 1813–15. Consequently its organization was not changed for about half a century. How this army would have fought in another war against a foreign aggressor will never be known; it was spared this trial. But one thing is beyond doubt, and was attested by events in the Revolution of 1848: only a part of it could be relied on in a fight against the people, the “domestic foe” of the government, and an unpopular war of aggression could not be waged with these soldiers.
In suppressing the Revolution of 1848 only the regiments of the Royal Guards, whose men were selected for their allegiance to the King, the cavalry, and the regiments recruited from the eastern provinces could be considered absolutely reliable. The army corps recruited from the west, the militia (Landwehr), and the reservists of many eastern regiments were more or less infected by liberal ideas.
The men of the guards and of the cavalry had to give three years of active service, as against two years for the other parts of the forces. Hence the generals concluded that two years was too short a time to transform a civilian into a soldier unconditionally loyal to the King. What was needed in order to safeguard the political system of Prussia with its royal absolutism exercised by the Junkers was an army of men ready to fight—without asking questions—against everybody whom their commanders ordered them to attack. This army—His Majesty’s army, not an army of the Parliament or of the people—would have the task of defeating any revolutionary movement within Prussia or within the smaller states of the German Confederation, and of repelling possible invasions from the West which could force the German princes to grant constitutions and other concessions to their subjects. In Europe of the 1850’s, where the French Emperor and the British Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, openly professed their sympathies with the popular movements menacing the vested interests of kings and aristocrats, the army of the house of Hohenzollern was the rocher de bronze amid the rising tide of liberalism. To make this army reliable and invincible meant not only preserving the Hohenzollerns and their aristocratic retainers; it meant much more: the salvation of civilization from the threat of revolution and anarchy. Such was the philosophy of Frederick Julius Stahl and of the Right-wing Hegelians, such were the ideas of the Prussian historians of the Kleindeutsche school of history, such was the mentality of the military party at the court of King Frederick William IV. This King, of course, was a sickly neurotic, whom every day brought nearer to complete mental disability. But the generals, led by General von Roon and backed by Prince William, the King’s brother and heir apparent to the throne, were clearheaded and steadily pursued their aim.
The partial success of the revolution had resulted in the establishment of a Prussian Parliament. But its prerogatives were so restricted that the Supreme War Lord was not prevented from adopting those measures which he deemed indispensable for rendering the army a more reliable instrument in the hands of its commanders.
The experts were fully convinced that two years of active service was sufficient for the military training of the infantry. Not for reasons of a technical military character but for purely political considerations the King prolonged active service for the infantry regiments of the line from two years to two and a half in 1852 and to three in 1856. Through this measure the chances of success against a repetition of the revolutionary movement were greatly improved. The military party was now confident that for the immediate future they were strong enough, with the Royal Guards and with the men doing active service in the regiments of the line, to conquer poorly armed rebels. Relying on this, they decided to go further and thoroughly reform the organization of the armed forces.
The goal of this reform was to make the army both stronger and more loyal to the King. The number of infantry battalions would be almost doubled, the artillery increased 25 per cent, and many new regiments of cavalry formed. The number of yearly recruits would be raised from under 40,000 to 63,000, and the ranks of commissioned officers increased correspondingly. On the other hand the militia would be transformed into a reserve of the active army. The older men were discharged from service in the militia as not fully reliable. The higher ranks of the militia would be entrusted to commissioned officers of the professional corps.*
Conscious of the strength which the prolongation of active service had already given them, and confident that they would for the time being suppress a revolutionary attempt, the court carried out this reform without consulting Parliament. The King’s lunacy had in the meanwhile become so manifest that Prince William had to be installed as prince regent; the royal power was now in the hands of a tractable adherent of the aristocratic clique and of the military hotspurs. In 1859, during the war between Austria and France, the Prussian Army had been mobilized as a measure of precaution and to safeguard neutrality. The demobilization was effected in such a manner that the main objectives of the reform were attained. In the spring of 1860 all the newly planned regiments had already been established. Only then the cabinet brought the reform bill to Parliament and asked it to vote the expenditure involved.†
The struggle against this army bill was the last political act of German liberalism.
[1. ][The Junkers were members of the landed aristocracy of Prussia.—Ed.]
[* ]Delbrück, Geschichte der Kriegskunst (Berlin, 1920), part IV, pp. 273 ff., 348 ff.
[* ]Ziekursch, Politische Geschichte des neuen deutschen Kaiserreichs (Frankfurt, 1925–30), I, pp. 29 ff.
[† ]Sybel, Die Begründung des deutschen Reiches unter Wilhelm I (2d ed. Munich, 1889), II, p. 375; Ziekursch, op. cit., I, p. 42.