A Genius for War

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

What can be said of a people as contradictory as the Germans, who gave the world Hayden and the Holocaust, Beethoven and Buchenwald? A nation of bright, industrious men who constructed great ships and grand philosophies, and also planned their wars, decades in advance, with equal care? We must analyze such people cautiously; our minds have been molded by their militarism, politics, and monumental defeats (on the heels of their great triumphs in the early stages of the same wars). We can still watch seas of German humanity goosestepping across flickering newsreels in a mindless apotheosis of Hitlerism. Films like Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl’s brilliant documentary of the 1934 Nazi Party rally at Nuremburg, even today stir our latent fears of Germany. Strutting brigades of fancifully dressed Uhlans, self-styled Huns, and Storm Troopers emblazoned with death’s head insignia parade grimly before the camera’s eye, a collective personification of German military history. Crowds orgasmically chant “Ein Reich, Ein Volk, Ein Führer” with a joy emanating from some medieval, Teutonic oversoul. We sense that those masses of faceless people, hypnotized by the rasping voice of their charismatic leader, had found fulfillment in their willing submission to the State.

Perhaps the answer lies in Prussia, a nation founded in darker ages in the Eastern marches by Teutonic Knights. Ringed by expansionistic and warlike peoples, possessing no natural defensible boundaries of any consequence, it pursued militarism through necessity. Prussia became, as Baron von Schrötter proclaimed, “not a country with an army, but an army with a country.” Mirabeau later observed that “war is the national industry of Prussia.” And that nation, through decisive nineteenth century victories, became the master of Germany.

Are these thoughts exaggerated stereotypes, historical half truths, or simply legends, reinforced by our willingness to believe the worst of the Germans? Trevor Nevitt Dupuy, the author of A Genius for War, supports the last view and argues that the Prussian-German is—and was—a reasonable human being. Between 1815 and 1945, Germany engaged in only six “significant” wars, he notes, while France and Russia in the same period fought ten and thirteen respectively, and imperialistic Great Britain, seventeen. The “peaceloving” United States participated in seven, including lesser wars against Seminoles and Philippine Insurrectionaries. Germany, concludes Dupuy, fought less frequently than most major European powers.

Colonel Dupuy’s interest in German military history began with his World War II studies, conducted in association with the Historical Evaluation and Research Organization. HERO attempted to evaluate military performance, using an objectively quantified combat model based on sixty engagements fought during the struggle for Italy. HERO began by assigning the more experienced Wehrmacht a ten percent battle superiority. But it found that German troops invariably defeated American infantry when they should have lost, according to the model, and concluded that a thirty percent edge was more accurate. HERO also found to its surprise that the presence or absence of superior American air power had little effect on results. German soldiers, concluded Dupuy, had delayed a predictable defeat with intelligence, skill, and dedication, a performance that he labels “genius.”

The Colonel next examined “the riddle of 1944.” After a successful tactical withdrawal on the Continent following D-Day, the Germans, almost incredibly, launched a major offensive (the “Battle of the Bulge”) which drove eighty kilometers through Allied lines before finally grinding to a halt. Dupuy marvels at an army that recognized it had lost the war on the beaches, yet conducted a brilliant retreat, and then launched a major offensive with some likelihood of success.

Dupuy interviewed numerous allied troops after World War II who had fought Germany (he had fought against Japan) and found them uniformly impressed by their opponents, in full agreement that Germans usually fought not only aggressively but also highly intelligently. Those who had not fought Germany, buttressed by the Pentagon, which refused to support Dupuy’s research, dismissed his ideas as “fudge factors.” Dupuy then produced objectively demonstrable World War II casualty figures. A hundred Germans could fight one hundred and twenty American or British soldiers as equals, he asserted, and inflict fifty percent more casualties than taken. Students of the military arts call this a “high average score effectiveness.” Interestingly, today’s popular World War II combat games assign the German side a similar edge for the game’s results to approximate reality.

Dupuy’s search for an explanation for superior German battlefield performance has drawn him to study the military history of Prussia-Germany from the Age of the Fredericks to the debacle of Berlin in 1945. He concludes that Germany successfully institutionalized, through its General Staff, officer corps, and standing army, a system that predictably applied military genius in war. That alone explains Germany’s ability to field the world’s best armies for a century. There was little, Dupuy claims, in German culture that predisposed its members toward excessive order or blind obedience; they were hardly the mindless robots portrayed by Hollywood—and Berlin—filmmakers. Dupuy forcefully dismisses zeal for the fatherland or the führerprinzip as particular explanations of German military success.

Dupuy is convinced that Germany had developed no significant military traditions before the last century. Certainly Prussia achieved a certain respectability under the Great Elector and his son Frederick William I, and Frederick the Great used the army willingly, but aside from his inclination for uniformed giants, changed it little. Dupuy, unimpressed with the quality of German soldiers in the eighteenth century, compares them rather unfavorably with the crack Swiss mercenaries of that era.

A Genius for War insists that Germany’s modern military excellence is rooted in the post-Napoleonic reform of the Prussian Army. To defend this idea, the author presents the argument that the Prussian Army was devastated by the Corsican upstart on several occasions between 1806 and 1813, beginning with Jena-Auerstadt. By 1815 the eighteenth century Prussian Army was gone, providing the perfect base for de novum reconstruction. Dupuy’s thesis, like Mark Twain’s spurious obituary, greatly exaggerates the death of the Prussian Army. Certainly its soldiers died in droves in the Napoleonic bloodbaths, but its staff, officers, and training system survived. Equally important, Napoleon’s mistreatment of Prussia between 1806 and 1813 convinced that survival-minded state of the wisdom of generous future support for its army. Despite Dupuy’s desire to connect Germany’s military greatness to the post-1815 reform era, the all-important, close Prussian Army-state relationship is quite linear back to the early eighteenth century.

The General Staff, a concept buried in antiquity, is Dupuy’s key to the success of the reorganized Prussian Army. Traditionally general staffs...

(The entire section is 3000 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Kirkus Reviews. XLV, August 15, 1977, p. 894.

Library Journal. CII, October 1, 1977, p. 2060.

Publisher’s Weekly. CCXII, September 5, 1977, p. 63.