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Napoleon, Prussian military and Hitler

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… in the early 19th century, the Prussians developed the next step in evolving industrial military into technological military, eventually leading to the Blitzkrieg techniques evolved by Guedarian et al.

In a well reasoned book Goldman and Eliason put to bed how the need to re-organize its armies led the Prussian Generalship to examine the connection between the nation’s socio-political organization and the means to develop a modern innovative military organization.

The Diffusion of Military Technology and Ideas

By Emily O. Goldman, Leslie C. Eliason

By repeatedly beating Prussian generals in battle, Napoleon provoked a radical reaction from the Prussians who eventually outdid his brilliance in battle, beginning in the battles of the 1811 to 1815 at Waterloo, especially.

In fact, the Prussian military realized that innovating and rebuilding their military machine required basic political reforms, or freeing its serfs so that they could become citizen soldiers like the French soldiers were. The serfs and mercenaries that made up Prussian armies lacked the ability and willingness to adopt the tactical and operational innovations introduced by Napoleon’s industrialized armies.

Maj. Gen. Scharnhorst, a political liberal and a reformer leading the effort to transform Prussia’s military capability to meet and then beat Napoleon in the field, recognized that it was necessary to free serfs politically to then train them in the new tactics used by Napoleon’s armies.

It is to easy to project this basic idea of revolutionary change into the predominance that Prussian and then German armies exercised over the next 125 years up until June 1940, which saw the lightning defeat of the larger better equipped French Armies by the Wehrmacht in Western Europe.

This predominance was finally stretched and broken by the radical over-reach of Hitler in Eastern Europe from 1941 till the crushing defeat of his armies in 1945 by the Soviet military juggernaut, marshalled by Stalin.

It’s clear then that the predominance of one army over the others comes mostly from the ability to train its soldiery in use of tactics and technology. That certainly was amply demonstrated in May and June 1940 in Western Europe and again in 1943 till 1945 by the Soviet military.


Nineteenth century Europe witnessed two waves of military innovation, each of which triggered attempts to emulate or counter the successful practices. By the beginning of the century, France had raised a mass army; reorganized it into corps and divisions; and developed a new tactical system, the so-called “mixed system.” The demonstrated success of the Napoleonic military system against Old Regime armies spawned attempts by Napoleon’s adversaries to emulate and counter this style of warfare. By mid-century, Prussia’s unique response to Napoleonic warfare – an organized reserve system and a general staff coupled with the military use of the railroad and telegraph and the adoption of rifled guns and artillery transformed warfare once again. The success of Prussian military methods in the Wars of German Unification led states both within and outside of Europe to adopt German methods.

(From me)

It’s clear that German military learned most from their experience in WW I. They found ways to develop and test out their air arm with faster fighters and tactical ground support equipment like the Stuka dive bomber and airborne transport adapted to carry parachutists into tactical situations. Then they developed tanks and tank warfare with adoption of onboard radio communications. They also developed telephone and radio communications to support their command and control of men, tanks and supply. These technological adaptions led to Blitzkrieg and warfare by movement.

Hitler was unscrupulous enough to see how to use this technical advantage combined with his canny understanding that the democracies, France, England, and the other nations of Europe were unable or unwilling to coordinate their military might to face down German military superiority.

But he did not at any time have any viable strategic plan. Most of his victories were won by the skin of the teeth with each warlike step leading to a grabbing of resources that Germany didn’t have.

The French military basically learned nothing and used armour and air in a purely support mode completely secondary to the movement of divisions, corps and armies of infantry.

(end of comment)

These two waves of innovation represented the military manifestation of broader social or economic changes. The Napoleonic warfare was the result of nationalism, while the Prussian military system was the result of the movement of industrial technologies and production techniques into the military sphere. Success or failure in the adoption of new military practices turned not only on military organization and culture, but also on the fit between the new techniques and the broader social, political and economic environment of each country.

Each of these broad social and technological changes constrained the ability of armed forces to emulate successful innovations in a different manner. The political changes required to emulate Napoleonic military practices were the most daunting. Countries unwilling to adopt wholesale social and political reforms attempted to copy those elements of the Napoleonic military system that required less jarring changes. Rail and telegraph lines were distinguished by their joint military and civilian character. Rail lines in particular were very expensive. Their development was the product of the economic interests of individual entrepreneurs and industries. Militaries were thus hamstrung or blessed with the civilian networks they were given. The rifle was the most purely military (and least expensive) of the three. Here, adoption success turned most on the abilities of the individual militaries and least on the civilian or material environment.

Written by BobG in Dalian & Vancouver

2010/04/17 at 07:40

Posted in about books, history, writings

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