Book Review: The German Way of War by Robert M. Citino

This book is an interesting read to say the least, Dr. Citino makes the case that there is a specifically German “way of war”. That way, is what he calls operational maneuver. He traces the development of this “way of war” from the 17th century battles of the Frederick William I, the “Great Elector” of electoral Brandenburg and scion of the Hohenzollern Dynasty through to the end of World War II and the final defeat of Nazi Germany. I am not myself so convinced that the discussion should end there based on my experience talking to current German soldiers about war and battle during partnership exercises while I have been stationed in Germany. The current state of operational thought in the Bundeswehr is a topic for another post though. (Bing! Idea Grenade)
Dr. Citino also rightly points out in numerous places that the study of military history should not be a form of “armchair generalship”. He says that instead “The primary question for historians should not be what someone ought to have done, but why they did what they did.”, (original italics pg. 269)
While I generally agree with Dr. Citino’s assertion about Prussian/German war making methods, I am not so certain that it is possible to trace such a method back to the wars of the Great Elector as he has done except in a very vague way. I simply do not think it is possible to talk about the operational level of warfare when one is speaking of armies small enough for one man to personally command. In my opinion, the first time you can really start talking about an operational level of warfare, is the Napoleonic wars. That was the first time that a commander had no choice but to rely on subordinate commanders to maneuver and fight significant portions of his army without him being able to take personal control. This was a function of both the size and geographic distribution of the armies involved. There was no operational level involved when dealing with armies of 20-30,000 men that marched and fought as essentially a single unit, even when one wing was detached at the point of contact. Armies of 50,000 and more that marched as separate units and could fight independently or together are a different matter entirely.
I do think that Dr. Citino has hit on an overlooked part of the German “way of war” in his recognition of a German tradition of a preference for offensive operations and a culture of élan that was nurtured within the culture of German military leadership. It is this preference for offensive over defensive warfare that sets German military tradition apart from other armies. No other army has so consistently sought to achieve a rapid decision in war as the Germans. Dr. Citino is also right in citing first Brandenburg’s and later Prussia’s and Germany’s strategic situation for fostering the desire for rapid victory. The wonder as I see it is that Germany was so successful in achieving this over the years. That is one of the things that makes the study of Prussian military history so interesting, they have won many wars they should have lost because of their method of making war.
The German Way of War is one of those rare military history books that are accessible to the layman while being written for the academic community. It is unfortunate that so many histories are written in such a style that the average person cringes and puts the book down after only a few pages if they even hazard to pick the book up in the first place. This is not one of them. It is extremely well written with only a few editing mistakes that I saw and the most notable was the substitution of the name of the city of Königsberg in East Prussia instead of the Battle of Königgrätz in a list of major German 19th century victories on page 236 and some minor spelling errors and omissions of words. The books includes extensive notes and source citations, the bibliography alone runs to 27 pages and is a valuable guide to the available literature on German Military history all by itself. I highly recommend this book.

  • http://www.military-history.us Patrick Shrier

    Dr. Citino,

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. I have read and own several of your works and they are all excellent and worth reading.

    Patrick

  • Rob C

    Patrick–

    Thanks for the kind words. Every point you make about the book–both positive and negative–is solid. Feel free to “have at” it. I wrote it, for the most part, to stimulate discussion, rather than to claim omniscience.

    –Rob Citino