Great powers typically exhibit well-defined patterns of behavior despite apparent changes in political regimes. Certain “problems” or “questions” in international relations have persisted for decades and centuries. Identifying and understanding these problems permit the student of strategy to better understand what is going on in the world—they constitute something of a set of rules and scorebooks of regional and global conflicts. These problems are not immutable but their resolution generally requires the absolute and convincing victory (or defeat) of one of the parties in the conflict. Problems often turn on the question of whether nations are to be unified or dismembered. We tend to think of borders drawn on maps as unchanging, yet in our own time we have seen the creation of new nations and the fragmentation of others.
The late Harold W. Rood, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, identified a number of such “problems” in international relations. There were, for example, what might be called the Problems of Asia in the 20th century. These were caused by the breakdown of a unified Chinese empire, Russian expansion to the east, and the rise of Japan as a modern economic and military power. Taken from the distance of over a century, it appears that these problems were (and remain) really a China Problem—whether China is to be divided or unified. If divided, which power or powers will exercise rule on the mainland? If united, what territory exactly would constitute China’s boundaries and strategic perimeter, and with whom, if anyone, would China be allied?
Then there is the Problem of the Middle East. The location of the Middle East at the juncture of Europe, Asia, and Africa, has left it exposed to outsiders seeking advantage within the region or moving across it as a bridge elsewhere. When some great struggle is underway in Europe, the adversaries of that struggle will seek whatever strategic advantage that can be gained through alliance with a Middle Eastern power or through intervention in a Middle Eastern dispute. This pattern included the Bourbon-Hapsburg conflict, in which Christian France enlisted the Moslem Turks against the Holy Roman Empire over which house would enjoy supremacy in Europe. French efforts to establish influence in the Middle East have continued with varying degrees of success until our own time; almost invariably those efforts have been connected with struggles elsewhere, particularly on the continent. Wilhelmine and Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union, all fished in the troubled waters of the Middle East in order to seek leverage against their European enemies. Now we see Russia deeply involved in the Syrian civil war; to what larger advantage, the student of strategy ought to ask.
Of particular interest for Rood, both for its intrinsic importance and as a case study in the dynamics of international relations, was what he called “the German Problem.” We offer below a synthesis of his analysis of that problem, based on various writings and lectures, particularly his 2009 essay, “Commentary on Books and Other Works Useful in the Study of International Relations” (see our “Recent Items” for a link), and Kingdoms of the Blind (1980).
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From roughly the time of the Reformation until the middle of the 19th century, the politics of central Europe was dominated by “the German Problem.” The German-speaking territories outside the crown lands of the Habsburg Empire were not ruled by a single power but by a bewildering collection of kingdoms, bishoprics, and the like. France, meanwhile, had become increasingly unified and coherent in power. The German Problem for France had a single solution: to prevent the concentration of German power through unification with centralized command over finances, resources, and armed forces. If Germany were to achieve unification, France would be imperiled. Since the time of the Capetians and of Philip Augustus, therefore, France recurringly interfered in the affairs of Germany. “Happily for France,” writes Rood, “the Peace of Westphalia, ending the Thirty Years War, left Germany divided with over 300 separate political entities, each free to make treaties with foreign powers and creating for France the opportunity to exploit the divisions to suit the demands of French security.”
The first major milestone in the transformation of the modern German Problem occurred during the Seven Years War, 1756-1763 (which had started in the Ohio Valley of North America, where a young George Washington was involved in the fighting). The conclusion of the Third Silesian War—a part of the larger Seven Years’ War—saw the Prussian incorporation of Silesia. One hundred years later control over Silesia helped the Prussian Army to win a decisive victory over the Austrian Army at Königgrätz (Sadowa). The six-week Austro-Prussian War of 1866 by all appearance had broken out over disputed claims between the two countries arising out of the German-Danish war of 1863-64 for the possession of the Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein. The Prussian General Staff’s history of the Austro-Prussian War, Campaign of 1866 in Germany, saw the matter in grander terms. It explained that the war
was a necessity of the history of the world; it must sooner or later have broken out. The German nation could not forever exist in the political weakness into which it had sunk between the Latin West and the Slavonian East since the age of Germanic Emperors…. Prussia would not give up her Germanic situation without being annihilated…. Austria had an existence foreign from Germany.
A close reading of Campaign of 1866 in Germany, argued Rood, helps to illustrate the German Problem.
The subtitle of the work is The War with Austria. It describes the strategy, operations, and tactics which brought defeat to Austria and the diplomatic and strategic insight that moved Prussia to undertake the war, and the instrument of power—the Prussian Army—that gained the decision and accomplished the purpose of the war: the elimination of Austria as an arbiter of affairs in the German lands.
This was the second major step in the control of those lands, and central Europe, by a Prussia-dominated German state.
On June 6, 1866, with the Prussian army situated on the Silesian border opposite Bohemia, Prussian forces in Schleswig prepared to move against the weak Austrian garrison in Holstein. The resulting Austro-Prussian War against Denmark led in 1866 to Prussia’s possession of both Schleswig and Holstein. The main forces of the Prussian Army were concentrated against Austria and those armies of the German states that were allied with Austria. These latter were subdued even as the Battle for Königgrätz—the decisive battle of the war—unfolded.
The Prussian Army halted at Pressburg within sight of the towers of Vienna. The French Emperor interceded with an offer to mediate the quarrel between Prussia and Austria. The German states aligned with Austria were in their submission accorded the honors of war by the Prussian King. Austrian troops withdrew from Venetia which was ceded to France and by France to the new state of Italy. Prussia had gained 1,300 square miles (German) of territory and four million inhabitants.
Six weeks before, the Prussian King William I declared to his people:
If God should grant us victory we shall be strong enough to renew under a firmer and more beneficial form those frail ties which have hitherto held the German districts together more by name than in reality.
Before the war the Austrian Army was considered one of the best in Europe, second only to that of France. But in 1866 the Prussian Army was ready for war while the Austrian Army was ill-prepared. The Prussian Army effectively utilized the almost 15,000 kilometers of railroads constructed across Germany since 1835. Prussia was swiftly able to defeat Austria’s allies within Germany and concentrate her forces against Austria before the other European powers could intervene.
The Austria defeat in 1866 proved a disaster for France in 1870:
By the time that Napoleon III chose to declare war against Prussia, Prussian diplomacy and military training and equipment had brought what had been the pro-Austrian German states into the Prussian fold and prepared them for war against France, whenever that should come.
The French military staff, having reviewed the experience of the French Army in Italy, Magenta, and Solferino, and the Prussian campaign against Austria, determined upon a reorganization of the Army, to be completed by 1874. But the French emperor felt compelled to declare war on Prussia and launch an offensive into the German lands. The declaration of war against Prussia was delivered in Berlin on July 19, 1870. But no French Army had yet been collected; French mobilization remained incomplete. The Garde Mobile was called up on July 15, but that force was only at half its authorized strength and was not yet entirely equipped for war. Reserves were called out the same day to bring French Army units up to their war strength, but they had to find their way to their mobilization stations along railways overcrowded with elements of the Army moving to the frontier and then try to find the units to which they had been assigned.
By contrast, the Prussian army, with elements of the other states in the North German Confederation, were deployed in their war stations by July 31, according to the defense plans drawn up in the winter of 1868-69. The object of the armies was “to see the enemy’s main force and to attack it.” While the French were still concentrating their armies on the frontier with the object of advancing toward Mainz and Coblenz, the Germans were concentrated and ready to strike into France to prevent the French invasion. On August 4, the Prussian Third Army attacked across the French frontier seized the fortified city of Weissenburg.
The assault on Weissenburg, ironically, was carried out by the Bavarian 1st Infantry Division, part of the 1st Bavarian Army Corps. It was ironic because France’s strategic intention had been to take the offensive to cut off southern Germany from Prussia, and to neutralize the armies of those states like Bavaria that had fought against Prussia in the Austro-Prussian War. But after the defeat of Austria Prussia had elevated Bavarian training and equipment to the Prussian standard and incorporated the Bavarian forces into the war against France. The Bavarian Army’s success at Weissenburg was a testament to Prussian statecraft. The German Army followed up this victory with another at Wörth and at Spicheren on August 6 and again at Mars La Tour on the 18th.
The French Army of Châlons was forced to surrender at the end of August. Commanding the army, Emperor Napoleon III was taken prisoner with his troops at the fortress of Sedan. Paris was besieged by September 19. The German Army occupied all of the key places of France by the New Year. In May 1871, at the Palace of Versailles, Germany was able to dictate the terms of peace. The German Empire was born.
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As the war began, the two rival monarchs both sought to explain the war in terms of the German Problem. On July 25, 1870, before moving with his military headquarters to Mainz, William I issued a proclamation to the German people: “Love for a common Fatherland, the unanimous rising of the German races and their princes…united as never before…the seed sown in blood…will bring a harvest of German freedom and unity.” On July 23, 1870 Emperor Napoleon blamed Prussia—not Germany—in remarks to the French people:
We war not with Germany whose independence we esteem…. We wish that the nations forming the Great German nationality may freely dispose of their destinies…. We desire to gain a lasting peace.
Napoleon III would lose his throne in an attempt to solve this German Problem, while William I would deal with the “French Problem” by unifying Germany under the empire. The French failed in 1863 and again in 1866—the Schleswig-Holstein War and the Austro-Prussian War—to halt the march toward the unification of Germany. Had France taken the side of Austria in 1866, and had Prussia been defeated, the victorious Austrian Empire would have dismantled Prussia and incorporated the German states. French diplomacy did not obtain the aid of London, St. Petersburg or Vienna before war was entered into and before the French Army possessed the wherewithal to carry out French strategy against Germany. Thus the centuries-long French policy failed in 1870-71 under the thrust of Otto von Bismarck’s strategy of using blood and iron to bring about German unification.
Though victorious, Germany left France intact to rebuild its military power, even though the logic of German policy called for its dismemberment. The next 75 years, through 1945, saw a new manifestation of the German Problem: whether Germany could complete the task of dismembering France, or whether France, with whichever allies it could obtain, could find a way to re-divide Germany or otherwise gain effective control over German policy.
The outbreak of World War I was a result of the intersection of the German Problem and the ongoing crisis of nationality in the Balkans created by the weakening of Ottoman rule. It did not stem, as conventional academic wisdom has it, from a system of entangling, interlocking alliances in Europe, from which a Balkan quarrel of peripheral importance led unnecessarily into a general European war, with all the deleterious consequences that flowed from the conflict (e.g., the Russian Revolution and World War II). The Franco-Russian alliance of 1894 was, in the standard account, the original sin from which all resulting evil flowed. To the contrary, the alliances were themselves symptoms of deep forces at work, forces creating conditions that were beyond the control of the European powers. The unification of Germany, brought about by Bismarck through the Danish, the Austro-Prussian, and the Franco-Prussian Wars, had been proceeding for at least 300 years. Nor is it at all certain that a unified Germany centered in Austria would have created a more peaceful Europe. Austria itself was beset by imperial problems that threatened its very existence, while faced with the demands of adjustment to the growth of internally fractured national states in the Balkans.
The emergence of Serbia, Romania, and Bulgaria out of the Ottoman Empire not only raised difficult problems for the powers who had helped create them, but also led to intra-Balkan competition which could be resolved only through the intervention of the Great Powers. The slow disintegration of the Ottoman Empire as a result of its growing inability to administer its territory created the “Eastern Question,” which commanded the attention of France, Great Britain, Russia, Austria, and ultimately Germany and which complicated the relations among those powers when it came to resolving other European problems.
The 19th century was a time of major social revolution in Europe. The great political upheavals—the French Revolution, the revolutions of 1848—are but one aspect of this. Just as consequential were the rapid growth of technology and its application to the industrialization of Europe. As Rood writes,
The great concentration of industry that grew along the Ruhr itself represented a revolutionary development. The introduction of the steam engine for manufacturing and for land and maritime transport, the electric telegraph, the widespread development of railways, and the manufacture on a great scale of industrial products such as cast steel, chemicals, high explosives and nitro-cellulose propellants, all conspired to alter the standards by which national power could be measured.
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If there was one particular catalyst for a general European war in 1914 it was German hostility to England, which made the German Problem one for London as well as for the continental powers. The German challenge to British naval supremacy (which had begun with the Naval Law of 1898 and continued through subsequent naval laws), the kaiser’s evident pleasure at British discomfiture in South Africa, and the German disregard for British interests in the Far East all helped to sour Anglo-German relations. In other circumstances, Britain might have sought an Anglo-German entente to counterbalance the Franco-Russian alliance, but such German statements and actions were seen in England as posing a direct threat to Great Britain itself.
It is untenable to suggest that leaders in Germany were unaware of the impact on Great Britain of German policy in Europe and elsewhere. General von Moltke, Chief of the German General Staff, wrote to Prince von Bülow, the German Chancellor in February 1906, of British views of the consequence of a Franco-German war:
The change in the distribution of political power which a victorious Germany would occasion in Europe would be so great a national danger for England, that she would be forced to relinquish the neutrality which she desires, and which is the intention of the government.
If Germany were in possession of the Belgian Coast, Holland would be forced to join Germany unconditionally….
It is argued also that Germany, if fixed on the Belgian-Dutch coast, must mean a perpetual risk of invasion for England….
Also such a change in the conditions of continental power would make England unable to use her home army for the defense of India, which would become necessary eventually….
The fleet, however strong, could not help to remove these difficulties…. Thus sufficient forces could not be kept in home waters to guard against the danger of a German invasion….
Thus also, England’s need of self-preservation demanded her taking part in a continental war to prevent any such predominance of Germany.
English “supremacy of the narrow seas” and “the exclusion of any great Power, and especially France, from the mouth of the Scheldt” have been at the center of British security policies since the Armada. British suspicions of German intentions at the start of the 20th century were clearly expressed in public under one guise or another. A review in Jane’s Fighting Ships, 1906/7 of a book used by the Navy League in Germany claimed it was a part of its program to have every German consent “to contribute even one shilling a year more to the upkeep of the German Navy.” If they did so, “victory, fame, colonies, and wealth would be theirs beyond dispute.” Erskine Childers’s classic espionage novel, The Riddle of the Sands(1903), recounts the discovery by two young British yachtsmen of the prepositioning of German supplies in the Frisians for some future invasion of England. “In these and similar works,” says Rood, “the fearful specter was raised of an armed descent on the British Isles. And that was a matter not only of the safety of England itself but of the defense of the Empire abroad. The substance behind the specter was the German High Seas Fleet at Kiel and in the Jade.”
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The threat to England was as clear to the German government as it was to the British public. Rood writes:
Whatever reason Germany may have had to make war on France, the consequences for Anglo-German relations of such a war in the era after the Franco-Russian Alliance were fully understood by the German government. And after the debacle suffered in 1870 because of her diplomatic isolation, France could have no excuse for failing to take all measures possible to prevent another such loss.
Matters evolved in Europe, then, not on the basis of diplomacy, but upon the change in the relative power among the nations of Europe, of which the most important was the growth of German industrial, military, and naval power that was, in both scope and nature, nothing short of revolutionary.
In short, the German Problem now manifested as a hemispheric and even global problem. German war aims in the First World War were set forth by Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg in September 1914:
The general aim of the war is security for the German Reich in west and east for all imaginable time. For this purpose France must be so weakened as to make her revival as a great power impossible for all time. Russia must be thrust back as far as possible from Germany’s eastern frontier and her domination over the non-Russian vassal peoples broken.
The fierceness with which the war was fought by Germany gives some measure of the importance of the war to German policy. The extraordinary actions taken to accomplish the defeat of the allies were a measure of the breadth of German aims. The Schlieffen Plan itself encompassed the destruction of the French Army on French soil, during the process of which all of France would have been occupied. If defeated, therefore, France’s survival would be at German pleasure and not the outcome of diplomatic negotiations between two powers of equal status. The German reign of terror imposed on Belgium during the invasion of that country in 1914 was not the consequence of an oversight or the behavior of ill-disciplined troops; German policy intended to destroy the morale and the will to fight of the Belgian and French armies by inflicting atrocities on the civilian population. The German war was aimed at recasting Europe to suit German purposes, which entailed the destruction of the constitutions of France, Belgium, Imperial Russia, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg.
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German objectives after World War I remained the same as they had been at the beginning of the war. Grand Admiral Tirpitz closed the first volume of his Memoirs, written in 1919: “England’s day of judgment will have its birth in this very success [victory over Germany and the Central Powers].” German policy towards France continued intact despite Germany’s defeat and the change of regime, first to the putatively democratic Weimar constitution, and then to that of National Socialist Germany. Mathias Erzberger, president of the German Armistice Commission in 1919—no Nazi, but rather a moderate who would later be murdered for his moderation—wrote a letter to The Times (London) published on January 17, 1920:
Another war between Germany and the Anglo-Saxons is inevitable. France is their strongest outpost on the continent but she has been so thoroughly weakened she will never be able to recover. If Germany can undertake the restoration of Russia she will be ready in ten or fifteen years to bring France without difficulty into her power. The march to Paris will be easier than that in 1914.
What made such plans possible of realization was the secret German rearmament carried on from the very close of World War I under Weimar, aided by the cooperation of the Soviet Union. When the Nazis did come to power, they accelerated German rearmament, mobilized the German people, and embarked upon a “new order” in Europe, which once more included the occupation and dismemberment of France.
The new chancellor of Germany, Adolph Hitler, assured his listeners that the new regime would forbear from all action that might be taken to increase the German Problem, in a speech on October 14, 1933: “when the Saar territory has been returned to Germany only a madman would consider the possibility of war between [Germany and France] for which from our point of view, there is no rational or moral ground.” By contrast, other members of the new German government or of the Nazi Party (Hermann Göring, Joseph Goebbels, and Alfred Rosenberg), espoused the idea that the German nation had a special and overriding right to take to itself as much of the Earth’s surface as it might judge to be necessary for its own national development without consideration for the existing owners and occupiers. Such acquisition could only be brought about by force, and not only against opposing armies. The conquest of the air, it was implied, opened the way for the totalitarian nation to wage totalitarian warfare that did not distinguish between soldier and civilian.
Meanwhile, in constructing the Maginot Line, France took care to site the artillery ouvrages so that the guns could not fire into German territory in order that the line could be classified as “defensive” as defined in the Geneva Disarmament Conference of 1933. During the so-called “phony war,” on December 1, 1939—a day after the Soviet Air Force launched bombing attacks on the capital of Finland—the French Premier informed the French Parliament that the French Army would not engage in offensive warfare against Germany in order to “spare blood and suffering.” France was well-prepared to defend itself while being frugal in the expenditure of the lives of its citizens.
In retrospect, this French strategy was inadequate to deal with the German Problem, as manifested in Mein Kampf, which detailed the National Socialist policy for reordering Europe. In case some of his underlings had not bothered to read that tome, Hitler, shortly after the invasion of the Soviet Union began in the summer of 1941, reiterated his objectives at a top secret conference. Hitler’s remarks were prompted by an article in a newspaper published in Vichy France—the (rump) French state that existed after the fall of France at German sufferance—which asserted that the German-led attack on Communist Russia was Europe’s war and therefore it should be conducted for Europe as a whole. Nonsense, Hitler said, according to notes of the meeting taken by Martin Bormann. “It was essential that we should not proclaim our aims before the whole world; also, this was not necessary, but the chief thing was that we ourselves should know what we wanted.” And what was it that Nazi Germany wanted? Germany, Hitler explained, would never withdraw from those areas that it had and would conquer. Decisions about particular administrative arrangements and territories that would formally be incorporated into the greater Reich would be determined on a case by case basis. “In principle we have now to face the task of cutting up the giant cake according to our needs, in order to be able: first, to dominate it; second, to administer it; and third, to exploit it…. [W]e [have] to understand that the Europe of today was nothing but a geographical term; in reality Asia extended up to our frontiers.”
Never again must it be possible to create a military power west of the Urals, even if we have to wage war for a hundred years in order to attain this goal. All successors of the Führer must know: Security for the Reich exists only if there are no foreign military forces west of the Urals; it is Germany who undertakes the protection of this area against all possible dangers. Our iron principle must be and must remain: We must never permit anybody but the Germans to carry arms!
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When the modern German problem was solved for France in 1945, it was done so with only token support from the French, who had been occupied and dismembered. Germany was again divided between East and West and its regime was forcibly changed into democratic and communist variants. The East German regime existed only with the support and sufferance of the Soviet Union. The political system, economy, and security of the Federal Republic was deliberately interwoven so tightly with that of the Western alliance that it could not represent a threat to its neighbors or reunify with the East without the acquiescence of the great powers. The presence of the United States in Europe was essential to the resolution of the post-1871 German Problem. As the saying went, the purpose of the Western Alliance (NATO) was “to keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down.”
This pattern of international politics in Europe endured for over four decades. The pattern reflected in large part the emergence, or reemergence, of a Russian Problem. The old German Problem did not disappear entirely, however. The Soviet Union insisted that its deployment of forces forward in the Warsaw Pact nations was meant to meet a German revanchist threat. The Soviets were especially sensitive to the possibility of West German acquisition of nuclear weapons, whether arrived at independently or through some sort of arrangement within the NATO alliance (Moscow insisted that the two amounted to the same thing). The Soviets might have reacted violently if the West Germans had crossed over some sort of nuclear red-line, or at least have loosened their restraints on nuclear forces in Eastern Europe and perhaps have formed a Warsaw Pact allied nuclear force.
Nor were the Russians the only power worried about West German acquisition of nuclear weapons. For instance, Sweden and Switzerland made noises about going nuclear to maintain their neutrality and security in such an event. Much of intra-NATO politics turned on the question of reassuring or cautioning Bonn about its nuclear-related security concerns. West Germany had seen how France had attempted to gain independence and greater influence within and outside NATO with its nuclear weapons program, and it might well have decided that the French course was the most promising policy had the alliance not devised an acceptable political alternative.
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When the question of German unification emerged unexpectedly in 1989, as Russian power seemingly receded from central Europe, it turned out that the German Problem remained to be dealt with. Not only did Russia oppose reunification at first, but West Germany’s major European democratic allies—one led by a conservative, Margaret Thatcher, the other by a socialist, François Mitterrand—were also reluctant adherents. The skeptics liked to quote the French writer François Mauriac’s bon mot: “I love Germany so much that I hope there will always be two of them.”
Reunification was brought about because the Germans, at least the West German leaders, wanted it, as did the United States. In the context of the times and for their own distinct purposes, no great power was prepared to create a situation where the Germans might challenge the entire political-strategic architecture of Europe in order to achieve unification. The American presence in Europe served as a necessary catalyst to clarify the new great power alignment without war. Things were not quite as they seemed, however. The Soviet Union, soon to be Russia, thought that the risk of reviving the German Problem was an acceptable price to pay to improve its ability to deal with its “American Problem.” For Moscow, the acceptance of German unification was a means to weaken and eventually eliminate the U.S. presence from Europe.