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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Definitions of Militarism. Vagts's massive History
of Militarism: Romance and Realities of a Profession

(1937, p. 11) reflected a liberal exile's view of recent
German history in its distinction between a scientific
“military way” and an unscientific militarism. “The
military way is marked by... concentration... on
winning specific objectives of power... with the least
expenditure of blood and treasure. It is limited in scope,
confined to one function, and scientific.... Militarism
is so constituted that it may hamper... the military
way.... It may permeate all society and become
dominant over all industry and arts. Rejecting the
scientific character of the military way, militarism
displays the qualities of caste and cult, authority and
belief.” But military authority rests partly on belief.
The French army which had lost the Battle of the
Frontiers defeated the Germans at the Marne, and faith
kept both armies attacking until they were finally

Middle-class Prussian liberals were the first to define
militarism. With the economic fortunes of the landed
aristocracy still in decline, the officer corps sheltered
many refugees. The now traditional values of loyalty
to a monarch as a personal feudal lord, or nobles whose
ancestors had sold out to or been ennobled by him,
were in even sharper contrast with the middle-class


values of equal opportunity for hard work for private
profit. The first Prussian debates had turned on the
status of middle-class Landwehr officers whose units
were to prove untrustworthy during the Revolution of
1848. While the same events made the middle class
as afraid of socialism as were the conservatives, its
growing wealth was not matched by more openings
for its sons in the officer corps.

As the social effects of victory wore off, the German
Empire's liberals returned to the attack. Prussia's con-
servatives did not invent “scientific management”—a
late nineteenth-century term made popular by an
American, Henry O. Taylor—but they had greatly
extended the scope of military, educational, and politi-
cal management in a system which won the loyalties
of large segments of the middle and lower classes.
Many of the most extreme Social Darwinist glorifica-
tions of war came from such late nineteenth-century
military publicists as Friedrich von Bernhardi. Von der
Goltz felt that The Nation in Arms demanded an “in-
of our moral forces,... for... [in Scharnhorst's
words] 'never are moral forces at rest; they fall as soon
as they no longer increase'” (trans. Philip A. Ashworth,
p. 290). These effusions did not halt the decline of the
conservative parliamentary parties; they did warn
Germany's neighbors of the dangers of German mili-
tarism. And Bismarck's constitution could not cope
with a supreme warlord who sounded like the ghost
of Napoleon, but could not act like the ghost of
Frederick the Great.

The German Empire was militaristic in tone, but
military men did not determine its policies. The Ger-
man army could not check massive expenditures on
a navy which helped to bring Great Britain into an
anti-German coalition. No staffs for scientific weapons
evaluation or research and development, for army-navy
cooperation, or for coordinating foreign and military
policy were set up to advise the Emperor. A popularly
elected Reichstag could check spending, but not mili-
tary or foreign policy action. Chancellor Bethmann-
Hollweg later boasted that he had not interfered in
a military policy which led to the invasion of neutral
Belgium. Germany became a military dictatorship in
1916. Its war aims made the destruction of militarism
and the democratization of Germany popular goals
among her enemies. To link their weak attempts to
secure those goals with their greater efforts to weaken
Germany needed no Hitler.

Postwar fascism also influenced Vagts's views of
militarism. Its rhetoric became still more flamboyant
in imposing new orders on masses which had been
deliberately led to hope for more revolutionary results
from their sacrifices. Vagts was not sure of communist
militarism. He did note that “Fascist and Communist
armies alike appeal to honor in secular language,” that
“the old Christian international idea of honor” had
survived “better in newer countries with less of a feudal
heritage, as in the United States,” and that much
military history was “a phase of militarism” (pp.
484-85, 21). He could not have been expected to see
that none of the totalitarian powers, except Japan, was
militaristic in the sense that military scientists deter-
mined policy.

The totalitarian powers' evaluations of air power—
the most important new weapon of the interwar
era—were no more scientific than the evaluation of
sea power by Wilhelmine Germany, and rather less
so than those made by the “Anglo-Americans.” Their
politicians “interfered” in military operations more
often than was the case with democracies which had
improved their decision making institutions to cope
with matters which the Great War had shown to be
“too important to be left to the generals.” The postwar
Clausewitzians managed the populist version of con-
servative militarism as poorly as the nobles had man-
aged France to support Tocqueville's view that “an
aristocratic nation... [which] does not succeed in
ruining” a democratic one “at the outset of the war
... runs a great risk of being conquered by it” (De-
mocracy in America,
IV, 240).

Social Darwinism is not necessarily evidence of
democratic militarism. Carolyn E. Playne's The Neu-
roses of the Nations
(London, 1925), Edward Glover's
War, Sadism, and Pacifism (London, 1947), and Alix
Strachey's The Unconscious Motives of War (London,
1957) are typical popularizations of many efforts to
apply social psychiatry to militarism. One can accept
Playne's idea of a mass mind which “first in Germany,
then in France, [showed] signs of nervous breakdown,”
but not that “parliamentary government in France
abdicated to the War Office” and “military authority
ruled the land, the Court and the Kaiser in Germany”
(pp. 461, 464) before 1914. She saw “time” and “hope”
as curatives, but German, Japanese, and Italian mili-
tarism were to be cured by outside powers, while
militarism remains a plausible restorative for both
conservative and radical nationalists in many countries.

The idea that militarism chiefly affects great powers
which have accomplished something by war is sup-
ported by those who see contemporary American
militarism as an outgrowth of her crusades against war,
fascism, and communism. In 1890 there were less than
4000 American officers on active duty in a population
of nearly 63,000,000. In spite of the demands of im-
perialism and navalism, there were fewer than 27,000
such officers—a quarter of the number of physi-
cians—in a population of nearly 130,000,000 in 1938.
By 1965 there were 350,000 officers for “normal”


armed forces of 2,500,000 in a population of
195,000,000. Until the second half of this century, the
American soldiers' guild had to see war, S. P. Hunting-
ton noted in 1957, “as an independent science,...
the practice... [of which] was the only purpose of
military forces” (p. 255). The soundness of its profes-
sional advice was partly responsible for militarism's
growth in a liberal society in which Huntington fur-
thermore sees “the power of the military” as “the
greatest threat to their professionalism” (p. 464). His
“militarism” is Vagts's “military way.” Its American
strands are “technism, popularism, and profes-
sionalism” (p. 193), its main “historical fact... the
extent to which liberal ideology and conservative Con-
stitution... dictate an inverse relation between polit-
ical power and military professionalism” (p. 143).

This first major American treatise on civil-military
relations found American and Soviet patterns histori-
cally “similar;... the dominance of a single anti-
military ideology... put obstacles in the way of
military professionalism.” Better relations between the
U.S. and Russia, he felt, would depend on both adopt-
ing a more “conservative outlook, divorced from uni-
versalistic pretensions.” He defined the “military ethic”
as one which combined a conservative view of “the
permanence... [of] evil in human nature” with the
Hegelian “supremacy of society over the individual,”
medieval ideas of “order, hierarchy, and division of
function,” and modern ones of “the nation state as the
highest form of political organization,... the con-
tinuing likelihood of wars among nation states,... and
the importance of power in international relations”
(ibid., pp. 463, 79). If the United States and the Soviet
Union have become militaristic by a “realistic and
conservative” acceptance of the results of their vic-
tories, the process was rather like that by which defeat
forced both democracy and militarism on France after

Realistic conservative nineteenth-century Marxists,
such as Karl Liebknecht, saw the social evil of private
ownership of the means of production as the source
of all social conflict. Militarism “exhibits... the na-
tional, cultural, and class instinct of self-preservation,
that most powerful of all instincts.” Its history is that
“of human development,... strained relations and
jealousies between nations and states, arising from their
desires for political and social power or economic
advantage,... [and] class-struggles within nations and
states for the same objects” (Militarism [1907], Eng.
trans. New York [1917], p. 2). The Marxist contribution
to military thought was practical rather than theoret-
ical. Engels' ideas for training workers for the coming
revolution did not allay conservative fears of mass
armies' unreliability. The French socialist, Jean Jaurès,
agreed with Spencer that industrialized democracies
were less likely to become militaristic; he wanted to
begin military training at ten and to cut peacetime
active service to six months (L'Armée nouvelle, Paris
[1910]; trans. as Democracy and Military Power, Lon-
don [1916]). But no democratic socialist general strikes
erupted in 1914. That nations in arms have fought so
well when “great interests” are involved underlines the
populist and nationalist demands for military power
which may result in what Janowitz (1964b, p. 16) calls
“reactive militarism.”

Contemporary research on militarism takes in de-
veloping societies in which militarism is mainly inter-
nal, as well as developed ones, and tries to fix the
degrees of political and social power held by soldiers.
Some advanced democracies now need only an internal
or international “constabulary” for peacekeeping pur-
poses (Janowitz [1964a], p. 12). The soldiers of some
totalitarian popular democracies may well be quite
realistic conservatives, but they are still subject to
political interference in their professional affairs. In
Huntington's view of professionalism in a liberal soci-
ety, political involvement hampers professional sol-
diers, who seldom get the expertise to compete with
its political, profit-making, and technological profes-
sionals. In its industrial-political-military complexes,
soldiers may become the scapegoats of “reactive mili-
tarism.” Liberals who are already suspicious of military
men credit the guild's successes to its liberal indoc-
trination, and blame it for any political failures. Sol-
diers may then blame their failures on a “stab in the
back” by the liberal politicians who ordered the war
or the profit-makers who sold them a particular weap-
ons system in the first place.

Finer (1962) sees the descent into convert or overt
military rule beginning with threats of mass resignation
or noncooperation. Then come vetoes of particular
policies or politicians, manipulating or delaying elec-
tions in the interest of public order, or the preventive
detention or murder of opposition politicians, and
covert or overt rule by soldiers. While they can take
advantage of the communications and intelligence
networks needed by all modern armies, their heavy
weapons may not produce for military politicians the
force they were once supposed to have even against
urban dissidents. And as Clausewitz once remarked
about a romantic view of people's war: “Even if we
do not consider it as an... unconquerable element,
over which the mere force of an army has as little
control as... over the wind,... we cannot drive
armed peasants before us like a body of soldiers who
keep together like a herd of cattle, and usually follow
their noses” (On War, Book VI, Ch. xxvi).

The “reactive” theory of militarism best fits great


powers—such as Prussia—under constant foreign mili-
tary pressure. The demand for weapons and profes-
sional military leadership was a popular national con-
cern, though professional politicians with mass parties
behind them can generally get military efficiency
without sharing real political power. Existing demo-
cratic polities survived total wars in Great Britain and
the United States, wars which led to more effective
civilian governments in Russia and China. Postwar
great power military aid programs increased soldiers'
power in other states, but did so by increasing their
managerial skills as much as by giving them better
weapons. And realistic liberals, conservatives, nation-
alists, and socialists have tapped so many popular
forces to strengthen their external and internal power
positions that the resulting spectrum of attitudes to-
ward the just uses of social violence can be made to
fit almost any a priori definition of militarism.

Andreski's look at “war, its alleged evil or beneficial
effects, its causes, and the possibilities of its abolition”
(1954, p. 1) goes with his belief that only Weber and
Mosca among sociology's founders had examined the
role of “military factors in shaping societies.” This
reflects “the insidious utopianism which pervades socio-
logical thinking” and soldiers' fears that a “critical
examination of the exercise of violence... might
besmirch... [their] idols.” But his theoretical classifi-
cation of societies by military population ratios and
levels of subordination and cohesion is only another
sign of the interests which turned Chicago scholars
from the historical and legal studies of Wright (1942)
to Janowitz' “elite analysis” of The Professional Soldier
(1960) based on “empirical data on social background,
career lines, professional ideology, and decision-
making” (1964a, p. 15) without greatly illuminating
war's fundamental causes.