Front Page Titles (by Subject) 2.: German Militarism - Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War
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2.: German Militarism - 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).
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The political system of the new German Empire has been called militarism. The characteristic feature of militarism is not the fact that a nation has a powerful army or navy. It is the paramount role assigned to the army within the political structure. Even in peacetime the army is supreme; it is the predominant factor in political life. The subjects must obey the government as soldiers must obey their superiors. Within a militarist community there is no freedom; there are only obedience and discipline.*
The size of the armed forces is not in itself the determining factor. Some Latin-American countries are militarist although their armies are small, poorly equipped, and unable to defend the country against a foreign invasion. On the other hand, France and Great Britain were at the end of the nineteenth century non-militarist, although their military and naval armaments were very strong.
Militarism should not be confused with despotism enforced by a foreign army. Austria’s rule in Italy, backed by Austrian regiments composed of non-Italians, and the Czar’s rule in Poland, safeguarded by Russian soldiers, were such systems of despotism. It has already been mentioned that in the ’fifties and early ’sixties of the past century conditions in Prussia were analogous. But it was different with the German Empire founded on the battlefields of Königgrätz and of Sedan. This Empire did not employ foreign soldiers. It was not preserved by bayonets but by the almost unanimous consent of its subjects. The nation approved of the system, and therefore the soldiers were loyal too. The people acquiesced in the leadership of the “state” because they deemed such a system fair, expedient, and useful for them. There were, of course, some objectors, but they were few and powerless.†
The deficiency in this system was its monarchical leadership. The successors of Frederick II were not fit for the task assigned to them. William I had found in Bismarck an ingenious chancellor. Bismarck was a high-spirited and well-educated man, a brilliant speaker, and an excellent stylist. He was a skillful diplomat and in every respect surpassed most of the German nobility. But his vision was limited. He was familiar with country life, with the primitive agricultural methods of Prussian Junkers, with the patriarchal conditions of the eastern provinces of Prussia, and the life at the courts of Berlin and St. Petersburg. In Paris he met the society of Napoleon’s court; he had no idea of French intellectual trends. He knew little about German trade and industry and the mentality of businessmen and professional people. He kept out of the way of scientists, scholars, and artists. His political credo was the old-fashioned loyalty of a king’s vassal. In September, 1849, he told his wife: “Don’t disparage the King; we are both guilty of this fault. Even if he errs and blunders, we should not speak of him otherwise than as of our parents, since we have sworn fidelity and allegiance to him and his house.” Such an opinion is appropriate for a royal chamberlain but it does not suit the omnipotent Prime Minister of a great empire. Bismarck foresaw the evils with which the personality of William II threatened the nation; he was in a good position to become acquainted with the character of the young prince. But, entangled in his notions of loyalty and allegiance, he was unable to do anything to prevent disaster.
People are now unfair to William II. He was not equal to his task. But he was not worse than the average of his contemporaries. It was not his fault that the monarchical principle of succession made him Emperor and King and that as German Emperor and King of Prussia he had to be an autocrat. It was not the man that failed but the system. If William II had been King of Great Britain, it would not have been possible for him to commit the serious blunders that he could not avoid as King of Prussia. It was due to the frailty of the system that the toadies whom he appointed generals and ministers were incompetent. You may say it was bad luck. For Bismarck and the elder Moltke too were courtiers. Though the victorious field marshal had served with the army as a young officer, a good deal of his career was spent in attendance at court; he was among other things for many years the attendant of a royal prince who lived in sickness and seclusion in Rome and died there. William II had many human weaknesses; but it was precisely the qualities that discredited him with prudent people which rendered him popular with the majority of his nation. His crude ignorance of political issues made him congenial to his subjects, who were as ignorant as he was, and shared his prejudices and illusions.
Within a modern state hereditary monarchy can work satisfactorily only where there is parliamentary democracy. Absolutism—and, still more, disguised absolutism with a phantom constitution and a powerless parliament—requires qualities in the ruler that no mortal man can ever meet. William II failed like Nicholas II and, even earlier, the Bourbons. Absolutism was not abolished; it simply collapsed.
The breakdown of autocracy was due not only to the fact that the monarchs lacked intellectual ability. Autocratic government of a modern great nation burdens the ruler with a quantity of work beyond the capacity of any man. In the eighteenth century Frederick William I and Frederick II could still perform all the administrative business with a few hours of daily work. They had enough leisure left for their hobbies and for pleasure. Their successors were not only less gifted, they were less diligent too. From the days of Frederick William II it was no longer the king who ruled but his favorites. The king was surrounded by a host of intriguing gentlemen and ladies. Whoever succeeded best in these rivalries and plots got control of the government until another sycophant supplanted him.
The camarilla was supreme in the army too. Frederick William I had himself organized the forces. His son had commanded them personally in great campaigns. Herein too their successors proved inadequate. They were poor organizers and incompetent generals. The chief of the Great General Staff, who nominally was merely the King’s assistant, became virtually commander in chief. The change remained for a long time unnoticed. As late as the War of 1866 many high-ranking generals were still not aware of the fact that the orders they had to obey did not emanate from the King but from General von Moltke.
Frederick II owed his military successes to a great extent to the fact that the Austrian, French, and Russian armies that he fought were not commanded by their sovereigns but by generals. Frederick concentrated in his hands the whole military, political, and economic strength of his—of course, comparatively small—realm. He alone gave orders. The commanders of the armies of his adversaries had only limited powers. Their position was rendered difficult by the fact that their duties kept them at a distance from the courts of their sovereigns. While they stayed with their armies in the field their rivals continued to intrigue at the court. Frederick could venture daring operations of which the outcome was uncertain. He did not have to account for his actions to anybody but himself. The enemy generals were always in fear of their monarch’s disfavor. They aimed at sharing the responsibility with others in order to exculpate themselves in case of failure. They would call their subordinate generals for a council of war, and look for justification to its resolutions. When they got definite orders from the sovereign, which were suggested to him either by a council of war deliberating far away from the field of operations, or by one or several of the host of lazy intrigants, they felt comfortable. They executed the order even when they were convinced that it was inexpedient. Frederick was fully aware of the advantage that the concentration of undivided responsibility in one commander offered. He never called a council of war. He again and again forbade his generals—even under penalty of death—to call one. In a council of war, he said, the more timid party always predominates. A council of war is full of anxiety, because it is too matter of fact.* This doctrine became, like all opinions of King Frederick, a dogma for the Prussian Army. It roused the elder Moltke’s anger when somebody said that King William had called a council of war in his campaigns. The King, he declared, would listen to the proposals of his chief of staff and then decide; it had always happened that way.
In practice this principle resulted in the absolute command of the chief of the Great General Staff, whom, of course, the King appointed. Not William I but Helmuth von Moltke led the armies in the campaigns of 1866 and 1870–71. William II used to declare that in case of war he would personally command his armies, and that he needed a chief of staff only in peacetime. But when the first World War broke out this boasting was forgotten. Helmuth von Moltke’s nephew, a courtier without any military knowledge or ability, timid and irresolute, sick and nervous, an adept of the doubtful theosophy of Rudolph Steiner, led the German Army into the debacle at the Marne; then he collapsed. The Minister of War, Erich von Falkenhayn, filled the gap spontaneously; and the Kaiser in apathy gave his consent. Very soon Ludendorff began to plot against Falkenhayn. Cleverly organized machinations forced the Emperor in 1916 to replace Falkenhayn by Hindenburg. But the real commander in chief was now Ludendorff, who nominally was only Hindenburg’s first assistant.
The German nation, biased by the doctrines of militarism, did not realize that it was the system that had failed. They used to say: We lacked “only” the right man. If Schlieffen had not died too soon! A legend was composed about the personality of this late chief of staff. His sound plan had been ineptly put into execution by his incompetent successor. If only the two army corps which Moltke had uselessly dispatched to the Russian border had been available at the Marne! Naturally, the Reichstag too was considered guilty. There was no mention of the fact that the Parliament had never earnestly resisted the government’s proposals concerning allocations for the army. Lieutenant Colonel Hentsch in particular was made the scapegoat. This officer, it was asserted, had transgressed his powers, perhaps he was a traitor. But if Hentsch was really responsible for the order to retreat, then he would have to be deemed the man who saved the German Army from annihilation through encirclement of its right wing. The fable that but for the interference of Hentsch the Germans would have been victorious at the Marne can easily be disposed of.
There is no doubt that the commanders of the German Army and Navy were not equal to their task. But the shortcomings of the generals and admirals—and likewise those of the ministers and diplomats—must be charged to the system. A system that puts incapable men at the top is a bad system. There is no telling whether Schlieffen would have been more successful; he never had the opportunity to command troops in action; he died before the war. But one thing is sure: the “parliamentary armies” of France and Great Britain got at that time commanders who led them to victory. The army of the King of Prussia was not so fortunate.
In accordance with the doctrines of militarism the chief of the Great General Staff considered himself the first servant of the Emperor and King and demanded the chancellor’s subordination. These claims had already led to conflicts between Bismarck and Moltke. Bismarck asked that the supreme commander should adjust his conduct to considerations of foreign policy; Moltke bluntly rejected such pretensions. The conflict remained unresolved. In the first World War the supreme commander became omnipotent. The chancellor was in effect degraded to a lower rank. The Kaiser had retained ceremonial and social functions only; Hindenburg, his chief of staff, was a man of straw. Ludendorff, the first quartermaster general, became virtually omnipotent dictator. He might have remained in this position all his life if Foch had not defeated him.
This evolution demonstrates clearly the impracticability of hereditary absolutism. Monarchical absolutism results in the rule of a major-domo, of a shogun, or of a duce.
[* ]Herbert Spencer, The Principles of Sociology (New York, 1897), III, p. 588.
[† ]Whoever wants to acquaint himself with the political mentality of the subjects of William II may read the novels of Baron Ompteda, Rudolf Herzog, Walter Bloem, and similar authors. These were the stuff the people liked to read. Some of them sold many hundred thousand copies.
[* ]Delbrück, Geschichte der Kriegskunst, part IV, pp. 434 ff.