Benjamin Ziemann. Violence and the German Soldier in the Great War: Killing, Dying, Surviving. Translated by Andrew Evans. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017. 320 pp. $114.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4742-3958-5.
Reviewed by Matthew Hershey (University of Michigan)
Published on H-War (March, 2019)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
As its title suggests, Benjamin Ziemann’s Violence and the German Soldier in the Great War: Killing, Dying, Surviving, the English translation and slight update of Gewalt im Ersten Weltkrieg: Töten – Überleben – Verweigern (2013), is an exploration of German soldiers’ experiences with and practices of violence during the First World War, and their consequences in the war’s immediate aftermath. Reflecting a depth of archival and historiographical knowledge acquired through over two decades of study on the topic, Ziemann’s book is a welcome addition to this increasingly rich literature, chiefly for the methodological and historiographical agenda it sets.
Ziemann’s stated goal is to “attempt to differentiate ... forms of violence and the willingness to perpetrate it,” and thus “present a nuanced analysis of the practices of violence and ... explore the connections between killing, surviving and refusal in the German army” (pp. 11, 13). That differentiation begins in the introduction itself with Ziemann’s definition of “violence.” Building on the work of Heinrich Popitz, Ziemann argues that “violence relies on the capacity to deliberately inflict injury on bodies” (p. 6). This inherently embodied conception of violence stands in direct contrast to that of Heather Jones, who deliberately employs a much broader definition that includes verbal threats and insults, as well as that of Alan Kramer, who analyzes the destruction of buildings and cultural markers as part of a common spectrum of violence. The introduction’s title and Ziemann’s central analytic metaphor, “The First World War as a Laboratory of Violence,” explicitly deployed to emphasize “the contingency and openness of events before and after 1918” (p. 10), also serves as a synecdoche for the book’s organization: each chapter is a reconstruction of a particular “experiment”—or soldiers’ experiences with an experiment—and an analysis and critique of the historiography surrounding it.
The volume is broken into three parts, each consisting of three chapters. Part 1, “Practices of Violence,” contains chapters on soldiers’ discourses on violence, Germany’s conduct of war in 1914, and a case study of Ernst Jünger. Part 2, “Refusal of Violence,” includes chapters on desertion, the road to revolution in 1918, and shirking. Finally, part 3, “Processing Violence,” presents chapters analyzing Weimar Germany’s degree of “brutalization,” a case study of the career-soldier Hermann Schützinger’s interwar conversion to pacifism, and a chapter on literary representations of “rear area militarism” published shortly after the armistice. Taken together, the book reads principally like a proof-of-concept, designed to demonstrate the need and value of taking the differentiated approach to violence Ziemann advocates. This approach, it should be emphasized, is also an intervention against the kinds of sweeping generalizations about wartime violence made by Joanna Bourke in An Intimate History of Killing: Face-to-Face Killing in Twentieth-Century Warfare (1999) and Niall Ferguson in The Pity of War: Explaining World War I (1998), both of which gained considerable historiographical traction after their publication.
Each chapter is even-handed in its historiographical critique and uses a combination of archival and published sources, although the exact ratio varies from chapter to chapter, resulting in some being stronger than others. One highlight is the chapter on Jünger (chapter 4), which is built on a close reading of Jünger’s wartime diary, published in its entirety in German in 2010. Ziemann paints a nuanced and emotionally complex portrait of Jünger, so often held up as the archetype of the proto-fascist “new man” who reveled in the violence of war as a source of personal and political renewal. Given Jünger’s historiographical status and the fact that, as of this writing, there is no English-language translation of his diary, having this analysis of Jünger available for an Anglophone audience constitutes an important addition to the literature. Part 2 also stands out, as the numerous archival sources used throughout these chapters make them some of the strongest in the entire volume. Chapters 6 and 7, especially, work in tandem to convincingly support Wilhelm Deist’s 1986 thesis that masses of individual German soldiers absconded from the army and made their way home in what was functionally “a covert military strike” in late 1918. This constitutes a notable pushback on Alexander Watson’s Enduring the Great War: Combat, Morale and Collapse in the German and British Armies, 1914-1918 (2008), which rejected Deist’s argument quite vehemently and has gained some notable historiographical purchase. The final chapter on literary representations of “rear area militarism” is arguably the weakest of the volume. While suggestive, the examples Ziemann chooses are, by his own admission, “exceptions in several respects” (p. 222), and the sketch provided is quite cursory and lacks the weight of archival grounding found in other chapters. The volume also lacks a conclusion, which results in the book going out with much more of a whimper than a bang and robs the reader of any clear and definitive sense of an overarching argument.
Despite these minor criticisms, Ziemann’s book is a valuable contribution to the literature, especially for Anglophone scholars. Scholars of modern Germany, World War I, violence, and warfare will all find much of specific interest here throughout the individual chapters. And while it is not explicitly brought home at the end, there is nonetheless an essential methodological and historiographical thread implicitly unifying the book: studies of violence and warfare in general, and of the First World War in particular, must start from a premise of historical specificity, multiplicity, and differentiation, not broad generalization, lest they fundamentally misunderstand or misrepresent their subjects. Given the overall strength of the proof-of-concept Ziemann provides here, new research would do well to work from this foundation.
. Wilhelm Deist, “Der militärische Zusammenbruch des Kaiserreiches: Zur Realität der Dolchstoßlegende,” in Das Unrechtsregime: Internationale Forschung über den Nationalsozialismus, vol. 1, Ideologie, Herrschaftssystem, Wirkung in Europa, ed. Ursula Büttner (Hamburg: Hans Christians Verlag, 1986): 101-129; first published in English as “The Military Collapse of the German Empire: The Reality behind the Stab-in-the-Back Myth,” trans. E. J. Feuchtwanger, War in History 3, no. 2 (1996): 186-207.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Matthew Hershey. Review of Ziemann, Benjamin, Violence and the German Soldier in the Great War: Killing, Dying, Surviving.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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