France and Germany: Poodles and Dobermans

Jeremy Hubble
March 26, 1997

During the past two centuries, the French and German militaries have evolved in vastly different manners.  The two countries have been at war a number of times with varying results.  Napoleon easily defeated Prussia.  Hitler, however, led a speedy conquest of France.  The different ideologies of the militaries of each country at the time helped to contribute to their victory or defeat.  Sometimes, these experiences were then used to help better prepare the army for future combat.  (Other times, however, the leadership just made excuses.)  Europe has almost always been at war.  France and Britain were two of the first European nations to successfully become unified in one state, and thus were some of the first to really fight.  However, with the formation of the German state, France found could focus its energies on bickering with its eastern neighbor and begin to be at peace with the British.  The many external events together with the internal happenings and history helped to mold the countries and their militaries.


Germany presents one of the most interesting cases in analyzing the different types of civil-military relationships and their relation to the society.  Through its history, Germany was one of the first to develop an objectively controlled professional military.  However, it was also quick to allow the military to take a key roll in society.  The Prussian military had a strong history of conservatism and adherence to rules.  With the rise to power of Hitler and the Nazis, the professional nature of the military and subservience became its own downfall.  As few of the officers were willing to organize in a group to challenge the unhealthy changes, the military eventually lost its autonomy and became subservient to Hitler.

Early Prussian history.

Germany was one of the last major powers in Europe to become unified.  The formation of the state was due to two key factors: "the political will and sagacity of the Hohenzollern rulers after 1640 and the effectiveness of the army which they created."  (Craig, pp. 74-75) The history of the Prussian state began with a close interconnectedness of the military and the state.  Thus, in the initial formation, undesirable mercenaries and rebellious officers were purged.  This helped to create a strong army.  However, in peacetime, the political leadership felt uneasy about the military strength, and accordingly demanded reductions.  However, "by a mixture of timely concessions, studied evasions, and careful economy,... the Elector was able to continue his policy of military expansion without serious interference until he was strong enough to defy his critics and destroy their centers of resistance."  (Craig, p. 76) Furthermore, by limiting the power and autonomy of the colonels, the Elector was able to give birth to a strong centralized Prussian military establishment.  He sought to instil a core professional belief among his officers that they were truly there as servants of the state, and not to seek after self-gratifying goals.

Frederick William continued on the trend of military expansion by declaring service in the military an obligation for all subjects.  Furthermore, anybody who left the country to avoid military service was treated as a deserter.  However, this ‘universal’ service was not in fact truly universal.  Most members of the upper classes were exempt.  Because their services were ‘necessary’ to the operation of the state, they were exempt from the service.  Furthermore, even the peasant farmers were needed by their strong landowners, thus they were released from service after two months’ drill.

Since the military was made up mostly of peasants, the natural leaders of the military would be the same as the leaders of the peasants, namely the noble land owners.  Thus the king persuaded them to join.  By offering such perks as an education and a high standard of living, the king played on the pride of the families, and soon most noble families had a son serving in the military.  "Frederick William continued along the lines so shrewdly plotted by the Great Elector and advanced the uniformity and centralization of the armed forces." (Craig, p. 80) However, even with the importance placed on the army, he, for the most part refrained from using the army in actual combat.  He had adopted one of the values held by the professional soldier, namely he is always prepared for war, but does not enjoy actual combat, and seeks to avoid it as much as possible.

During the Napoleonic wars, the Prussian armies were routed by the French.  This caused for some introspection.  On one side, the generals York and Knesbeck saw the defeat as a consequence of incompetent leadership and bad luck.  Thus they saw know strong need for overwhelming military or political reforms.  They sought only to fix the "patent abuses" of the system.  However, this complacency helped lead to the accedence of Scharnhorst and Stein to the helm of the post-war reorganizational efforts.  They saw the military defeats as a condemnation of the present military and political systems.  "Prussian people had so openly disassociated themselves from the fate of their government and their army....  If Prussia was to survive, the interest of the masses in their state must be awakened and they must be persuaded to serve it willingly."  (Craig, p.83)

As a way to reform the military and help create popular support, the reformers sought to end the aristocratic dominance of the officer corps.  Thus, the Prussian military was taking yet another step forward in the implementation of the first true professional officer corps.  Military commissions were extended based on the knowledge, skill, and competence of the individual.  Any man who was of age and had the requisite experience could take the exam to enter in to various degrees of leadership and responsibility.  Understandably, the elite were not to pleased with this reform which greatly diminished their guaranteed roll in the military.  The king, too, in 1809 reasserted his right to appoint officers when and where he saw fit.  However, the reform of the officer corps continued, and became one of the quickest and most successful of the German military reforms.  The schools taught both practical military applications and cultural book learning.  Thus it helped meld the officers that Prussia needed, and became one of the premier instructional institutions.

The reform of the enlisted body, however, was much slower and difficult.  The Treaty of Paris placed severe restrictions on the recruitment procedures, and the organization of a standing army.  The military leaders were distraught that the king accepted the treaty, for they thought it would continue the old ways which would "destroy the warlike spirit of the nation and its sense of community by relieving the other sections of society from the duty of directly defending the state."  (Craig, p. 86) They recommended universal conscription of all men between 20 and 35.  Furthermore, they sought for all to fulfill their liability in some way.  The Treaty of Paris, however, also interfered with these plans, and allowed the French to step in and replace the German military leaders.

Stein did, however, effect significant reforms of the civil government which helped restore a greater deal of popular support towards the army and the state.  The armed forces had also improved greatly in the areas of technical efficiency.  Furthermore, field tactics had benefitted from the French influence.  And perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the reformers was the creation of a War Ministry.  Instead of giving a great deal of power to a single Minister of War, the Germans created a unified decision making Ministry were each individual would have limited power, and they would act in concert to achieve their goals.

Prussia achieved its authoritarian control system through a convergence of monarchical conservatism and bureaucratic aristocracy.  It did not have to pass through democracy to achieve its system.  In fact, the Prussians, considered liberal democracy un-Prussian.  However, the path that the Prussian military took to obtain its strengths caused many shortcomings in the growth of civil society.  Instead of serving the state, the Prussian army served the warlord.  Similarly, much later in its history the German army would found itself being required to subjectively serve Hitler.  Service tended to make lower class people more submissive. 

Second Reich and Beyond

Germans were thrilled by the establishment of the second Reich.  "Among patriotic Germans, who regarded the foundation of the second Reich as something approaching a miracle, admiration for the army was unbounded....  In the halcyon days which succeeded 1870 there was a the most cordial fellowship between soldiers and civilians." (Kitchen, p. 91)   However, it took but a short time for these positive relationships to deteriorate.  One of the key reasons for this deterioration was the militaries disregard for the problems of civilian life.  Soldiers were tried, even for civilian crimes, in military courts, where the punishments were much less severe.  Reservists were called up without informing their superiors.  The army would even encroach on the rights of civilians, acting in police force.  As a whole, the army acted in a callous manner forgetting the clientele that it was supposed to have been serving. 

The army thought it could get away with these excesses because of its excessive influence.  This influence could "only be maintained with the active support of a wide section of the bourgeoisie."  (Kitchen, p. 92) Thus the military paid little attention to those outside its sphere.  Furthermore, the military was a way of assimilating the bourgeoisie into the elitist state.  The reserve officers were accordingly very proud of their rank and their position.  This military glory often bought them more pride than similar civilian achievements.  Thus it was only natural that they strongly support the military. 

The Krigerverein serves as essentially a military trade organization.  Officers were expressly forbidden from joining.  However, since the military wanted to keep control of this essentially military organization, they encouraged officers to participate in honorary rolls.  Elite officers, however, were reluctant to join it. Even so, it exercised a great deal of political strength.  It helped to give birth type of soldier who was not a landowner or Prussian.  It gave birth to fundamental reforms in organization and equipment and (most logically of all) demand for a larger army. 

The German soldiers held animosity towards the civilians.  They thus became a means to control the civil society.  The army became intermingled with the affairs of state.  It was praetorian, and to some degree subjectively controlled.  After the defeat in World War I, the Prussian tradition was greatly altered in the new German state.  One of the key players in the military reform effort was Hans von Seckt.  He "was compelled to build upon the ashes of defeat... a military microcosm, complete within itself in every detail, yet capable at the given moment of limitless expansion"  (Wheeler-Bennett, p. 96) He believed that the offense was the best means of defense.

Seckt used Republican ideals to his own means. He was stubborn, and often could not see any way but his own.  Furthermore, he thought "the Army should become a State within the State, but it should be merged in the State through service; in fact it should itself become the purest image of the State" He desired to have his generals active in politics.  The professional separation was not the ideal which he desired.  The class-based system however was a crucial element that he desired to hold intact.  Democratic advancements were not for him.  Even with his hard-headedness, Seckt was able to get a following of many of his subordinates, probably due in part to his conservative emphasis on Prussian traditions.  Seckt’s fault, however, may have been his indecisiveness, which made the military vulnerable to Hitler.

Seckt had made plans to take over the leadership of the government.  The chancellor handed over leadership to the military to serve as a guardian of the country to restore order.  (Lack of unity in the country led to Bavarian separatism, as the Bavarians took an oath to Bavaria instead of Germany.)  Hitler tried to use this to encourage a revolution in the country.  However, this was quickly put down.  After peace was ‘stabilized’, regal government was restored, seemingly safe from a military coup.  Unfortunately, this led the country exactly where Hitler wanted it.  Hitler was able to purge the officers, and install his leaders to form the subjective Nazi controlled German state.

In the post-World War I Germany, paramilitary organizations were abundant.  They tended to be "antibourgeois, antidemocratic-liberal, ... fascist... chauvinist, extremist, nostalgic, romantic, and past-oriented" (Perlmutter, p. 105) They were independent to themselves, and didn’t accept any subversion to the state.  They also had strict discipline, voluntary membership, and a hierarchical leadership structure.  The Waffen SS was one of the strongest examples of these paramilitary organizations.  "Beginning as an instrument of terror, the revolutionary soldier organization became an appendage of the state war machine." (Perlmutter, p. 107) They became the core of the Nazi parties power.  They were anticorporate and revolutionary, and longed for the feudal traditions.

The Reichswehr was able to survive in the post-World War I Germany in part due to the weakness of the state.  The military, however, had many disagreements with Hitler.  The fuhrer, found a quick solution to these problems.  He took direct command of the army.  He removed the officers that he did not like, and replaced them with his followers.  The military was controlled by the dictator.  He "created exactly the opposite situation from the neutrality to which the traditional professional officers aspired."  (Perlmutter, p. 111) However, the officers lacked the unity to form a strong opposition to Hitler.  Because of this lack of unity, they were easily subjected to the Nazi state. 

Germany built upon the strong Prussian tradition of military activism.  The professional nature of the military was formed as a way of strengthening the defense and unity of the country.  It was subservient to the state.  However, this strength, led to major outbreaks of warfare as the German state engineered itself to prepare for all out war.  In times such as World War II, the military lost its professionalism due to the lack of corporateness.  The military was constantly assuming praetorian rolls, serving as a guarding for the state, and in other capacities.  The economic hardships, the military defeats, political unrest and instability, and the week governing institutions all contributed to the influence of the military in the affairs of the state.


The French military had an organization and history that made it vastly different from the German.  While the German military found itself involved heavily in politics and political reforms of the day, the French military kept at a distance from the military.  The French military will never be accused as having a lack of corporateness.  In fact, it may even be argued that they had too much corporateness for there own good.  (This unity and unwillingness to sway from the status that made most French soldiers unwillingly to risk joining de Gual’s insurgent force against the Germans)

The revolutionary sentiments felt in France in the decades following the French Revolution helped to impact its civil-military relationships afterwards.  The citizens in arms model was prevalent in France during the post-revolutionary era.  Everyone was involved in some degree in the military effort.  It was the duty of the citizens to serve their country.  The military was not a political entity, but instead a collective body serving the country.  After the Napoleonic era, however, the French in general were ready to embark on normal life.  Military service lost its overwhelming importance.  However, it still had its strong military ethic and commitment to serve the country.

During the revolution, the "National Convention had, with a patriotic flourish, decreed that ‘the battalion organized in each district shall be united under a banner bearing the inscription: The French people risen against tyranny."  (Challener, p. 115)  All Frenchman held an equal patriotic obligation to come to the service of their country.  Later, in 1870, the army leaders would lose faith in the French conscript, and would in turn be defeated.  This would lead to a gradual reanalysis of the concept which was first defined at the time of the 1789 French revolution.  Throughout the recent history of France, the concept of nation in arms has steadily evolved in meaning.  Earlier, it related only to the males and the country, following the outbreak of World War I, it began to take on a meaning of total war. 

From 1815 to 1870, "the French army as a whole led an existence completely apart from the rest of the nation."  (Ralston, p. 118) During the Napoleonic era, the people enthusiastically supported their military and took an actively roll in the defense of their country.  However, they eventually tired of the constant militarism.  They began to distance the military from themselves. 

The membership in the French military also differed from that of the German.  Whereas the Germans gave a great deal of respect to the military institutions and respected the officers the French did not.  The French soldiers received a mere pittance compared to other members of society.  Membership in the military was determined by lots.  These lots however, could be bought and sold.  Thus, as it turned out, the only people serving in the military were the poor that were unable to afford to pay someone sufficiently to take their position.

Furthermore, service in the military entitled a long term commitment (ranging at different times from five to eight years) In this period of time, it was expected that the soldiers would lose their ties to the civilian world.  And this was often the case.  The military, thus became greatly separated from the state and the civilian life. 

While France was experiencing a great revival of intellectual growth, the military remained stagnant.  The military did not encourage intellectual inquiry.  Instead, it encouraged a blind adherence to the rules.  Instead of learning ways to make practical decisions, many soldiers would instead spend time memorizing the various rules and protocols that must be adhered to.  "Rather than learning to use his own initiative, the typical officer came to look no further than the orders given by his immediate superior or the appropriate military regulations."  (Ralston, p. 124)  This helped to increase the unity and corporateness of the military, but at the same time left it without strong independent leadership to guide it in times of crisis.  furthermore, the various units were given a great deal of autonomy.  There was very little overwhelming national control or training in modern war tactics.  Thus without strong leadership or knowledge, the French fell easy prey to the Germans in the second World War. 

The French military was corporate and under objective control.  They were not praetorian.  They also were professional in that the military saw itself as directly responsible to the sovereign ruler of the state.  However, with the frequency of changes in the leadership of the state, the military was faced with the problem of who to serve.  Prior to 1870, they had taken an oath to serve the sovereign ruler.  They adhered to "the principle of absolute obedience pure and simple to whomever should be in a position of supreme power." (Ralston, p. 121)  Should they serve the original sovereign to which they had pledged their loyalty, or should they serve the new one who had come to power.  Usually, the military would opt to serve the newly legitimized power.

Due to its professional nature, the French military was highly supportive of the regime.  It did not want to interfere with the affairs of state, and did not like the state to interfere with its actions.  Objective control predominated.  Even when the military was involved in a coup, it only did so reluctantly, and went directly back to its ways afterwards, letting the civilians take care of the reorganization in the new regime.  It was forced to enter due to its commitment to support the regime, and thus against its will, was involved, only quickly to leave.  It rallied to the support of the new leader, Napoleon III, however, quickly retreated to its normal roll outside of politics.

Laws were also implemented in France that helped to guarantee the professionalism of the French officers.  All officer were guaranteed their promotions strictly on the basis of seniority.  However, certain gifted, able young officers were also granted promotions to higher ranks at a younger age to help retain capable, youthful leadership.  Furthermore, the law of May 19, 1834 made a distinction between the rank of an officer and his position.  The officer’s rank was his property, and could only be taken for him under the most unusual of circumstances (and adhering to government protocol) His position however, was dictated by the needs of the state and was subject to change as the state saw fit. 

When Napoleon III sought to expand the military by increasing the conscription of commoners, the military objected.  They though that conscripts would only be worthwhile after serving a few years in the military.  Fresh conscripts had to be broken of their civilian ways in order to effectively serve in the military.  This was but one of the problems the French faced in the 1870 war with Prussia.  They were also out manned, lacked an organization for large-scale warfare, and most problematic of all, they lacked leadership. "There was no general in unquestioned command of the armies in the field who was able to impose his will on his higher-ranking subordinates or on the government...  The command of the main French field army changed hands three times in the course of six weeks...  None of the subordinate commanders displayed any initiative."  Even a bravely, skilled army without leadership would fail.  The French saw this failure as a direct effect of the ways that Napoleon III had interfered with the military.  The French wanted their military to be left alone.

The corporateness of the French military also helped to lead to their defeat in World War II.  After it had become rumored that France was seeking an armistice, the French soldiers let down their guard, and the Germans were able to even more easily plow through the French defensive line.  Their history of corporateness caused the army as a whole to act together, and thus to ‘give in’ together when rumors of defeat abounded. 

During the armistice talks, France was worried that it might have to disband its army.  It still had a fleet which it hoped to use as a playing card in the talks, however, it realized it did not have much latitude.  France was, however, thrilled when it learned that German only demanded a reduction in the forces, and a neutralization of the navy.  Little did they know that this was part of Hitler’s policy. He sought the armistice French army as a means of keeping hold of France, while freeing up German armies for the conquest of England.  He could further use this as leverage in the final peace conference which he expected to occur shortly.  However, the conquest of England didn’t go as expected, and the armistice army would actually grow to help out France.  They officers in France also bore a sigh of relief.  "For one black moment, it had seemed that the German diktat might accomplish what a century of French antimilitarism had tried but failed to do: to abolish the institution of professional soldiery altogether in France." (Paxton, p. 131)

Following the armistice, French resistance was surprisingly small.  The French were amazingly loyal to their country and to the agreements that were made.  The only strong movement that appeared was De Gaulle’s London resistance movement.  However, the officers that he attracted were almost universally outside the loop of French military affairs.  They were mostly "men already detached from the close hierarchy of command functions."  (Pacton, p. 135)  Officers would not give up active command to join a non-standard body.  Most officers remained in their original commands.  De Gaulle’s effort was further thwarted when England shelled a French ship rather than permit it to return to a German occupied home port.

The nation in arms state of post-revolutionary France involved a high degree of military involvement in the name of patriotism.  Following the Napoleonic Wars, however, the French tired of this militarism.  The military was regulated to its own sphere.  The antimilitary ideology in France helped lead to the establishment of a cohesive professional corporate military.  This military, for the most part, was immune to the many political and social changes effecting the country.  While the adherence to Prussian militaristic traditions caused the German military to be heavily mingled with politics, the French was able to chart it’s own course away from the difficulties of the political sphere.  Non-military external affairs were irrelevant to the French.  Only when a sovereign, such as Napoleon III, attempt to subjectively control the military, did the military become involved.  The strong corporateness, however, was also its downfall, as officers refused to break with the country even when fighting a losing cause.  They were serving their sovereign.  If their leadership dictated that they jump off a cliff, they would do it.  At the time, however, the French leadership desired absolute compliance with the armistice conditions.  The military leaders were very willing to follow, and do exactly what their superiors desired.  The military bore loyalty only to the state and to itself.  There was no need to try to serve some far-flung ideology that ran contrary to the state or the military, even if in the long run, this idea would produce a better situation for the state.

The German military, even up to the time preceding World War II had strong aristocratic influences.  The Prussians were very conservative, and pay playing to their traditional aristocratic zeal, and desire for the good ‘ol Prussian aristocratic ways, the government could sway the nation in to compliance.  (It’s very similar to the Aggies at Texas A&M) The various paramilitary organizations attest to this desire.  Hitler played on the conservative, aristocratic ideals, and implemented an authoritarian mass-party control system.  He sought to control all aspects of the military himself, and thus infiltrated the system to do so.  The military’s distaste for democratic reforms allowed him to easily do so.  Those who followed adaptive careers through the German military tended to be either strongly against or for the Nazis.  However, most officers who had followed the standard advancement path were neutral, and followed along.

The French military, however, evolved from its aristocratic structure to a democratic structure.  The French revolution resulted in the nation in arms concept.  Everyone become involved in the military to spread the democratic principles.  Afterwards, the disdain for militarism caused a massive reduction in the popular participation in the military.  However the general reforms instituted allowed all who so desired to participate in the military and raise to the same rank.  However, the majority of those who desired to participate in the military were of the lower classes, who couldn’t pay their way out of military service.  The elongated period of service helped to establish a strong corporate body, loyal to the state, and distanced from civilian affairs.  Alas, these factors also proved to be weaknesses, as the officers failed to have intuitive powers of their own, often waiting for orders instead of implementing their own strategy.  The Germans were primed and hungry for the attack, while the French were well-organized, looked great on paper, but suffered from poor leadership and unprogressive thinking.

the ideologies of the countries also shifted.  France evolved to have a very liberal ideology.  This ideology was thus seeking to limit the strength of the military and the military ethic.  Because of the differences in the country's ideology, and the military ethic, separatism was encouraged.  Prussia, on the other hand had a conservative ideology that shifted towards fascism.  The various paramilitary groups in existence glorified and romanticized war and violence.  The fascist "hails the state or the party as the embodiment of moral virtue" and trusts in "the inherent genius and supreme virtue of the leader." (Huntington, pp. 89-94)  This is the system that evolved in fascism Germany.

The civil military boundaries were also different in France and Germany.  France had highly integral boundries.  The interchanges across the civil and military boundries were limited and occurred only based on the established regulations.  The military remained apart from politics.  Only when called upon by civil groups did they enter in to civil affairs.  Germany on the other hand was highly involved in the politics.  It had fragmented boundries.  Furthermore, while Germany glorified the Prussian military 'warlords', France placed soldiers on a lower strata of affluence.  Thus, the German military had the support of the society to intervene, while the French had no inclination nor the prestige to intervene regularly in affairs.  In both countries, however, defeat in war prompted increased civil-military intervention, as should be indicated by Welch's model.  However, in France, there was a relatively quick return to the status quo.  The military had already had a well-defined roll as to its position in political affairs.  In Germany, however, the government was seen as ineffective in solving the key economic hardships of the country.  Furthermore, the cohesion of the military forces was limited due to the preponderance of paramilitary groups.  There were essentially a multitude of militaries in existance at once, thus prompting for greater political involvement.  Thus, the history and current events in each country contributed to the military's roll therein.  While one barked like a Doberman, the other was well kept and organized like a poodle.


Huntington, Samuel.  The Soldier and the State

Craig, Gordon.  The Army and the State

Craig, Gordon.  Stein, Scharnborst, and Reforms

Kitchen, Martin.  The Army and the Civilians

Whefler, John.  The Seekkt Period: 1920-1926

Catsten, F.L. Seeckt’s Personality

Childs, David.  Hitler’s Putsch

Perlmutter, Amos.  The Romantic Revolutionary: The Storm Troops and the Waffen SS

Challenger.  The Nation in Arms

Ralston, David.  The Army and the State: 1815-1870

Paxton, Robert.  June 1940: The French Army Lives On

Paxton, Robert.  The Gualist Resistance Movement