War Volunteering in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Blaubeuren: Sonja Levsen; Christine Krüger; SFB 437 Kriegserfahrungen. Krieg und Gesellschaft in der Neuzeit, 06.09.2007-08.09.2007.
Reviewed by Graciela Iglesias Rogers (University of Oxford)
Published on H-Soz-u-Kult (October, 2007)
War Volunteering in the 19th and 20th Centuries
Over three days at the University of Tübingen’s Heinrich Fabri Institute scholars engaged in what is believed to have been the first ever international discussions on the subject of “War volunteering in the 19th and 20th Centuries”. A conference sponsored by the Tübingen Collaborative Research Centre “War Experiences” (SFB 437) brought together scholars from four continents, drawn by the prospect of examining an aspect of warfare which has attracted surprisingly little academic attention. Neither long-term studies nor comparative analyses of volunteering in Modern European History have been undertaken. In an attempt to address this gap, a score of participants gathered in the idyllic surroundings of Blaubeuren, in the Swabian Alps, between September 6 and 8.
The ambitions of the conference were conveyed in the opening remarks by organizers CHRISTINE KRÜGER (Oldenburg) and SONJA LEVSEN (Freiburg). They invited discussion of the criteria for regarding soldiers as volunteers; of the motivations for and social dimensions of volunteering, of concepts of nation and citizenship that informed volunteering and of the extent to which volunteering is a modern phenomenon. Krüger illustrated the challenge by citing a questionable Wikipedia definition of war volunteering as exclusively 'enforced volunteering' as when an officer selects troops with the command: “I need three volunteers: you, you and you”. She pondered whether a tendency on the part of historians to challenge the numbers of volunteers and the role of idealism in their motivations might have been due to the fact that “volunteers disturb well established narratives”, as exemplified by recent disclosure of Gunther Grass´s involvement with the Waffen-SS.
Adopting a chronological approach, the conference began with the period 1789-1815. In his paper For the Fatherland? The Motivations of Austrian and Prussian Volunteers during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, LEIGHTON STUART JAMES (York) offered numerous reasons for volunteering, including desire for adventure, the dashing image of the army, francophobia, religious fervour, chances of promotion, simple subsistence, and reasons as prosaic as that of the merchant's son who simply wanted to “ride a horse”. The Romantic, patriotic-nationalist literature of the period influenced the language used in volunteers’ diaries and memoirs. Yet, none cited patriotism as predominant justification of their behaviour – in apparent contradiction to “the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries nationalist master narrative that saw a heightened sense of German national identity which found expression in the 'uprising' of the German nation.” LAURENCE MONTROUSSIER (Montpellier) noted in The French Volunteers during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, that recruitment in a France continually at war between 1792 and 1815 changed with the introduction of the levée en masse in 1793. Yet volunteering remained possible. Controversially, Montroussier excluded from her definition of 'volunteers' those who were not civilians at the time of signing up. She did not include returning émigrés who had served in the army of the Ancien Régime. Montroussier identified three waves of volunteering. The first (1791) involved 'active citizens' (mostly bourgeois) who enlisted in militias. A second wave (1792) attracted the 'army of sans culottes', and a third (1798) included men who aspired to military service, but feared being ineligible. Others volunteered to join cavalry in order to avoid conscription into the infantry. During the Empire, some found themselves under arms because bourgeois parents had sent them to military schools or to the prestigious Vélite units. Certain volunteers were 'substitutes' – replacements paid by those anxious to escape conscription. Their status could be considered analogous to that of mercenaries. Lastly, she referred to the Vendéan insurgents who “did not belong to military units organised by the State, but freely joined [the counter-revolutionary forces] to fight”. Religion, pecuniary and travel prospects, and the desire to be actors in the Napoleonic epic were also factors. In contrast to the situation described by James, Montroussier considered that patriotism significantly influenced the earliest French volunteers as well as the prospect of regarding themselves as ‘liberators’ of the rest of Europe as the French empire expanded.
Commentator RUTH LEISEROWITZ (Berlin) added that Polish volunteers in the French Army saw themselves as fighting to defend the integrity of their country, albeit as a component of the Napoleonic empire. Asked about their presence in Spain, particularly in bloody siege assaults on Saragossa, Leiserowitz answered that Poles were troubled, even traumatized by the experience. A further motivation was suggested: that of expressing loyalty to the State, as exemplified by Jewish volunteers seeking to underpin their credentials for French citizenship. Ensuing discussions focused on whether mercenaries could be validly viewed as 'volunteers'. Graciela Iglesias Rogers (Oxford) a participant who is researching British volunteers in the Spanish Army during this period, argued that mercenaries self-evidently offer their services – but strictly on the basis of the best financial terms. By contrast, a 'true' volunteer responds to a particular cause and would not change sides heedless of remuneration.
In the second panel, MICHAEL HOCHGESCHWENDER (München) with his paper Irish Volunteers in the American Civil War surveyed the role and perceptions of Irish émigré warriordom on the Union side. A single view of Gaelic heroism had developed and prevailed, particularly in songs, poetry – and in movies as recent as Martin Scorsese´s Gangs of New York. Yet there was little homogeneity and no singularity of purpose among volunteers. The Irish diaspora was represented by Catholics, Protestants and secular Irish. The war was not an integrationalist experience, although it was helpful in providing “an integrationist-patriotic framework” which led to the Irish becoming the “first really hyphenated Americans”. As for the opposing side in the conflict, YAEL STERNHELL (Princeton) in her paper Marching towards a Nation: Southern Volunteers in the American Civil War and the Rise of Confederate Nationalism noted that the secessionist state was too weak and its society too individualistic to allow orchestrated expressions of loyalty and fervour. Confederate nationalism had to be "manufactured". In that process, the volunteers became "the Confederacy in the flesh". Stefan Zahlmann (Konstanz) drew on the American Civil War to illustrate "the way war volunteers see their service after the downfall of the society they were fighting for". In his paper Victims or Culprits in the Fight for ‘a good cause’? Volunteers in the Confederate Army and in the frontier troops of the GDR he asserted that their "cultures of remembering" were almost identical: volunteers relapsed into self-victimization, depicting themselves as betrayed idealists in causes latterly considered 'wrong'. Panel chair JÖRN LEONHARD (Freiburg) took issue with the choice of exemplars which, he said, involved comparison of "a real war with a class war". Commenting on the first paper, Leonhard recalled that the multifaceted nature of Irish identity should also include colonial and imperial dimensions: many Irish flourished within the British Empire.
Like Jews who volunteered for Napoleon´s army, black Americans envisaged that service in the United States army might be "an opportunity to achieve full integration as American citizens into the American nation-state", according to MATTHIAS SPEIDEL (Tübingen) in his paper African-American Volunteers in the US Army during the Spanish-American War 1898, which opened the third panel. The social situation of black people deteriorated after emancipation with over 1,200 lynched in a decade. The Black Press (around 20 newspapers) encouraged Black soldiers to abandon the Spanish War in order to liberate their brothers in the South. Volunteers soon began to demand non-white leadership. Their slogan was “No [black] officers, no fight”. Nonetheless, discontent did not lead to mass desertion even when it became clear that Blacks could not hope for improvement in status in recognition of their service. In British and Imperial Volunteers in the South African War, STEPHEN MILLER (Maine) suggested that recruits were “motivated strongly by patriotism or at least they convinced themselves that the need to defend their country was their primary factor for signing up” after the Boers' ultimatum challenged the prestige of the British Empire. But the decision to go to war was “much more complex” and could include factors as mundane as boredom with everyday life in Victorian England or flight from creditors. These reasons “supplemented rather than took precedent over the call to defend the interests of home and empire.”
Men described by FRANSJOHAN PRETORIUS (Pretoria) in Foreign Volunteers with the Boer Forces in the South African War of 1899-1902 displayed a similar range of motivations including escape from financial or domestic problems, disputes with their own national armies, and antipathy towards the British, as in the case of the Irish-American Brigade. The volunteers were unwelcome, even native Hollanders who went to defend the “Dutch race”. Boers deplored their lack of military training, viewing volunteers as a burden on resources. Panel chairman ANDREAS STEINSIECK (Braunschweig) mentioned that, on both sides, some turned to war reporting when rejected for military service. He considered that the role of patriotism might be overstated due to the postwar “battle of reputation” fought out in volunteers's diaries and memoirs. During discussions it was suggested that in the past two decades historiography seems to have migrated from economic determinism (deeming all volunteers to be mercenaries) to gender discourse (going to war to test their masculinity).
In Panel Four, dedicated to the First World War, ALEX WATSON (Cambridge) mentioned recent research that calls into question the 'war enthusiasm' that drew thousands of young men to recruiting offices across Europe. In Voluntary Enlistment in the Great War: a European Phenomenon? based chiefly on comparison of experiences in Germany, Britain and France, he concluded that it was not war jingoism but the success of late nineteenth century nation-building that drove volunteers to offer their lives in the defence of states that had won their loyalty and affection. No such factors were in play in the case of citizens of the United States – neutral until 1917 – such as the men and women studied by AXEL JANSEN (Frankfurt) in Heroes or Citizens: the 1916 Debate on Harvard Volunteers in the European War. Defying their country's prevailing isolationism, sons of upper-middle class families faced accusations that choosing to “die on a foreign battle-field in a foreign army” was treasonable. They seem to have been attracted mainly by the opportunity to test their character. Thus, when the US entered the war in 1917, the conflict lost its appeal. In debate, GERHARD HIRSCHFELD (Stuttgart) questioned the basis of Watson's quantitative comparisons, given that initially there was no conscription in Britain whereas at the outbreak of the war it was established practice in France and Germany. Watson considered the comparative exercise worthwhile in showing that patriotism soon turned into grim determination for all European volunteers. In that context, Watson found that there was no such a thing as “disillusionment of the war”. He argued that “combat strengthens resolution to fight because so much has been already invested”. Changes of attitude could be attributed to distinct factors such as the conduct of war or war profiteering.
One of history's notorious volunteers featured in the fifth panel's opening presentation: Adolf Hitler and the Myth of an All-Volunteer Regiment: The Volunteers of the List Regiment in the First World War by THOMAS WEBER (Princeton). He suggested that inflated post-war claims by Hitler and his comrades about the “sacrifices and political travails of an all-volunteer regiment (...) became rallying cries for a frontal assault against the Weimar Republic”. Similarly, in Fighting for God, for Franco and Ourselves: Right Wing Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, JUDITH KEENE (Sydney) suggested that volunteers from 37 countries who fought on the Nationalist side rejected discredited democratic regimes established under the Versailles settlement. They included Irish Blueshirts, White Russians, Romanian Iron Guards who envisioned a ‘New Europe’ in which Communists, feminists, Freemasons and Jews would have no place. Their hero was General Moscardó who, rather than surrender to besieging Republicans who were holding his son hostage, commended the teenager in a telephone call to “die like a patriot”. The volunteers were snubbed, with Russians and French suspected as Communists. In the aftermath, the volunteers were completely overlooked as the narrative of victory became exclusively Spanish.
A concluding panel dedicated to the Second World War opened with Women in combat: female volunteers in British anti-aircraft batteries in the Second World War by JUTTA SCHWARZKOPF (Oldenburg). She countered traditional images of women in uniform as secretaries or drivers by highlighting tensions between contemporary notions of femininity and women's presence in mixed sex gunnery units. In operating intricate ordnance and bringing down enemy aircraft, they derived “deep satisfaction, unknown to most in civilian life”. Unlike the Spanish Nationalists, Hitler´s regime adopted a proactive approach to recruiting foreigners, as described by JEAN-LUC LELEU (Caen) in From the Nazi Party´s Shock Troop to the "European" Mass Army: The Waffen-SS volunteers. Initial attention was directed toward ethnic Germans particularly in the Balkans, Eastern Europe and Denmark (Volksdeutsche). In 1942, when manpower targets were missed, Himmler resorted to conscription in Germanic communities. Nonetheless, the role of Volksdeutsche was exploited to create the illusion that ethnic patriotism could be fomented through ideological education. On the Eastern front, the Wehrmacht was supported by the Division Española de Voluntarios – the 'Blue Division' set up by the Franco regime, as recounted by XOSÉ-MANOEL NÚÑEZ SEIXAS (Santiago de Compostela) in Why die in Russia? An approach to the social profile and the ideological motivations of the Spanish volunteers of the "Blue Division" 1941-43. He painted a nuanced picture of the reasons for enlistment extending beyond Fascist sympathies to encompass religion, career improvement in the Francoist Army of the 1940s and generational, familiar and political experiences during the Civil War. Volunteering could be considered “as a decision met within a context of diffuse information, limited options and shifting expectations, which condition the rationality of the personal move.” Emotional factors such as enthusiasm, group solidarity and “accumulative eagerness” to fight have also shaped that uncomprehending response “I don't know why” encountered in interviews with war veterans.
Well-organised and intellectually stimulating, the conference represented a first foray into uncharted academic territory. The discussions successfully demonstrated the breadth and multifaceted nature of a subject eminently worthy of deeper, concerted research. The proceedings, to be published in 2008, will certainly make a significant contribution to the study of a phenomenon which owes much to religious, social, cultural and political influences, thus meriting study well beyond the narrow remit of the military historian.
War Volunteering in the 19th and 20th Centuries
Christine Krüger/Sonja Levsen: Introduction
Session I: The Napoleonic Wars and their Aftermath
(Commentary: Ruth Leiserowitz, Berlin)
Leighton Stuart James, York: For the Fatherland? The Motivations of Austrian and Prussian Volunteers During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.
Laurence Montroussier, Montpellier: The French Volunteers During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars
Session II: The American Civil War
(Commentary: Jörn Leonhard, Freiburg)
Michael Hochgeschwender, München: Irish Volunteers in the American Civil War
Yael Sternhell, Princeton: Marching towards a Nation: Southern Volunteers in the American Civil War and the Rise of Confederate Nationalism
Stefan Zahlmann, Konstanz: Victims or Culprits in the Fight for „a good cause“? Volunteers in the Confederate Army and in the frontier troops of the GDR.
Session III: Turn of Century Wars
(Commentary: Andreas Steinsieck, Braunschweig)
Matthias Speidel, Tübingen: African-American Volunteers in the US-Army during the Spanish-American War 1898
Stephen Miller, Maine: British and Imperial Volunteers in the South African War
Fransjohan Pretorius, Pretoria: Foreign Volunteers with the Boer Forces in the South African War of 1899-1902
Session IV: The First World War
(Commentary: Sonja Levsen, Freiburg)
Alex Watson, Cambridge: Voluntary Enlistment in the Great War: a European Phenomenon?
Axel Jansen, Frankfurt: Heroes or Citizens: The 1916 Debate on Harvard Volunteers in the “European War”
Session V: From the First to the Second World War
(Commentary: Sönke Neitzel, Mainz)
Thomas Weber, Princeton: Adolf Hitler and the Myth of an All-Volunteer Regiment: The Volunteers of the List Regiment in the First World War
Judith Keene, Sydney: Fighting for God, for Franco and Ourselves: Right Wing Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War
Session VI: The Second World War
(Commentary: Gerhard Hirschfeld, Stuttgart)
Jutta Schwarzkopf, Oldenburg: Women in Combat: Female Volunteers in British Anti-Aircraft Batteries in the Second World War
Jean-Luc Leleu, Caen: From the Nazi Party's Shock Troop to the “European” Mass Army: The Waffen-SS Volunteers
Xosé-Manoel Núñez Seixas, Santiago de Compostela: Why die in Russia? An Approach to the Social Profile and the Ideological Motivations of the Spanish Volunteers of the “Blue Division”, 1941-43
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