Cabinet war and national war

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By BIG SERGE*

The debate between Von Moltke and Bismarck, and Vladimir Putin's decision to wage war with Ukraine to overthrow it as a strategically capable entity

The century between the fall of Napoleon in 1815 and the start of the First World War in 1914 is usually considered a kind of golden age of Prussian-German militarism. During this period, the establishment The Prussian military won a series of spectacular victories over Austria and France, enshrining an aura of German military supremacy and realizing the dream of a unified Germany through force of arms. Prussia, at this time, produced three iconic personalities in military history: Carl von Clausewitz, a theorist; Helmuth von Moltke, a military professional; and Hans Delburk, a historian.

As often happens, this century of victories and excellence produced a feeling of pride and militarism in the establishment Prussian-German, which led the country to march impetuously to war in August 1914, only to founder in a terrible conflict, in which new technologies frustrated the time-honored idealized approach to war. As they say, pride precedes a fall.

This is a curious and rewarding story, one that predicates a fairly traditional cycle of hubris and ruin. True, there is some truth to this, for there were many members of the German leadership who displayed an indecent degree of overconfidence. However, that was far from the only feeling. There were also many prominent pre-war German thinkers who professed fear, anxiety, and outright dread. They had valuable ideas to teach their colleagues – and perhaps us.

Let's go back to 1870, to the Franco-Prussian War. This conflict is generally considered the masterpiece of the titanic Prussian commander, Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke. Exercising skillful operational control and astonishing intuition, von Moltke orchestrated an aggressive opening of the military campaign, launching the Prussian-German forces like a mass of tentacles over France, confining the main French field army in the fortress of Metz, in the early hours. weeks of the war, and besieging it. When the French Emperor, Napoleon III, marched with a relief army (comprising the rest of France's battle-worthy formations), von Moltke also went hunting for that army, surrounding it at Sedan and taking the entire force (with the Emperor included) to captivity.

From an operational perspective, this sequence of events was (and is) considered a masterclass, and one of the main reasons why von Moltke became revered as one of the greatest talents in military history. The Prussians carried out their Platonic ideal of war – the encirclement of the enemy's main body – not once, but twice, in a matter of weeks. In the conventional narrative, these great sieges became the archetype of Kesselschlacht German, or siege battle, which became the ultimate goal of all operations. In a sense, the establishment The German military spent the next fifty years dreaming of ways to replicate Sedan's victory.

This story is true to some extent. My goal here is not to “destroy myths” about Blitzkrieg or any other trivial thing. In fact, not everyone in establishment German military saw the Franco-Prussian War as an ideal model. Many were terrified by what happened after Sedan.

By rights, von Moltke's masterpiece in Sedan should have ended the war. The French had lost both their trained field armies, as well as their head of state, and should have given in to Prussia's demands (notably, the annexation of the Alsace-Lorraine region). Instead, Napoleon III's government was overthrown and a national government was declared in Paris, which promptly proclaimed what would amount to total war. The new government abandoned the capital and called a take it in bulk (mass uprising): a return to the wars of the French Revolution, in which all men aged between 21 and 40 were called to arms. Regional governments ordered the destruction of bridges, roads, railways and telegraphs, to prevent their use by the Prussians.

Instead of bringing France to its knees, the Prussians were faced with a quickly mobilized nation determined to fight to the death. The French government's emergency mobilization capacity was astonishing: by February 1871, it had mobilized and armed more than 900.000 men.

Fortunately for the Prussians, this never became a true military emergency. The newly created French units lacked equipment and their training was poor (particularly because most of the country's trained officers were captured in the initial campaign). The new French mass armies had poor combat effectiveness, and von Moltke managed to coordinate the capture of Paris, along with a campaign in which Prussian forces marched across France to overrun and destroy elements of the new French army.

Crisis averted, war won. Everything felt cozy in Berlin, it seems? Far from it! While many were content to shake hands and congratulate each other on a job well done, others saw something terrible in the second half of the war and in the French mobilization program. Surprisingly, von Moltke himself was among them.

Von Moltke saw the ideal form of war as something the Germans called Kabinettskriege: literally a “cabinet war”.[I] This was in reference to limited wars, which dominated international affairs for much of the XNUMXth to XNUMXth centuries. The specific form of these wars was that of a conflict between the professional armed forces of the States, accompanied by their aristocratic leadership, without mass mobilizations, without scorched earth, without nationalism or patriotic propaganda.

For von Moltke, his previous war against Austria was the ideal example of a cabinet war: the Prussian and Austrian professional armies fought a battle, the Prussians won, and the Austrians agreed to Prussia's demands. No blood feud or guerrilla warfare was declared, but instead a vaguely chivalrous acknowledgment of defeat, with limited concessions.

What happened in France, instead, was a war that began as a Kabinettskriege and evolved into a Volkskriege - a national war,[ii] which called into question the entire notion of limited cabinet warfare. As von Moltke would say: “Gone are the days when, for dynastic purposes, small armies of professional soldiers went to war to conquer a city or a province, and then sought winter quarters or made peace. Today’s wars call entire nations to arms.”

In von Moltke's opinion, the only solution to a Volkskriege would be to respond with a “war of extermination”. Many will probably bristle at the literal image of this idea, but von Moltke was not suggesting genocide. He meant something close to the destruction of France's resource base: dismantling the state, destroying material wealth and meddling in its internal affairs. In essence, he appealed to something similar to what Germany would impose on France in 1940: Hitler did not try to annihilate the French population, but neither did he take a few territories and leave. Instead, France, as an independent state, was crushed.

In 1870–71, von Moltke argued that the pursuit of limited military objectives against France no longer made sense, since the entire French nation was now gripped with anger against Prussia-Germany. The French – he argued – would never forgive Prussia for taking Alsace, and would henceforth become intractable enemies. Therefore, all of France should be equalized as a political-military entity.

Otherwise, it would rise again and very soon become a dangerous enemy again. Unfortunately for von Moltke, the Prussian Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, wanted a quick solution to the war and was not interested in trying to occupy and humiliate France. He told von Moltke to go after the new French army and get it over with. And von Moltke did.

However, von Moltke's basic fear – that a limited war would not cause lasting damage to France as a threat – turned out to be true. It took a few years (until around 1875) for the French to completely rebuild their armed forces. Von Moltke and his general staff now considered that the window of opportunity had been closed, and France was fully prepared to fight another war.

However, from a military point of view, there were many in establishment Prussians who were terrified by France's success in mobilizing an emergency army. Prussia's victory, they argued, was only possible because the French mobilization had been improvised – they lacked weapons and training. One nation If it was prepared to mobilize and arm millions of men in repeated recruitment, with the necessary logistics and training infrastructure, it would be almost impossible to defeat – they argued –, and this called into question the entire picture of the Prussian war effort.

The idea was so significant that von Moltke dedicated a large part of his final speech in the Reichstag to the topic, before it was reformed. As he said on that oft-mentioned occasion: “The age of Kabinettskriege left behind – all we have now is Volkskriege, and any prudent government will hesitate to provoke a war of this nature with all its incalculable consequences. (…) If war breaks out (…) no one can estimate its duration or know when it will end. The greatest powers in Europe, who are armed like never before, will fight each other. No one can be annihilated so completely in one or two campaigns that they declare themselves defeated and are forced to accept harsh conditions of peace.”

Such a statement seems to be – and in fact is – contrary to the recognition of Germany as overconfident and belligerent, and to the idea that everyone was surprised by the duration and savagery of the world war. In fact, Germany's most revered pre-war professional explicitly predicted a horrible, total, protracted war.

Other members of staff von Moltke pontificated more explicitly on the threat of national war, or total war.[iii] Field Marshal Colmar von der Goltz was the most prolific of these, and wrote extensively about the French mobilization project, arguing that the French could easily have overwhelmed the Germans if they had had the ability to adequately train and supply their new forces. His general thesis was that future wars would necessarily involve all the resources of the state, and Germany must lay the foundations for training and sustaining mass armies during years of conflict.

In the years leading up to the First World War, a minority wing emerged in establishment German, remarkably perceptive about the coming conflicts, who argued that they would only be won through total strategic attrition, with all the resources of the nations in combat, mobilized over many years. In functional terms, the German military apparatus was divided between a prominent majority who saw the first half of the Franco-Prussian War (with von Moltke's massive victories) as a model, and a less prominent but vocal minority who feared the portents of mobilization of France and envisioned a future of “national war”.

All this is infinitely interesting for buffs of military history and for those learning about humanity's bloody history of wars. What is interesting for our purposes, however, is the debate between von Moltke and Bismarck in the closing months of 1870. Von Moltke clearly saw that France's patriotic animosity had been aroused, and believed that a limited war would be counterproductive, in to the extent that it would not be able to substantially weaken France in the long term, leaving an intact and vengeful enemy.

This calculation turned out to be essentially correct, and France was able to provide a powerful effort in the Great War of the early XNUMXth century. In contrast, Bismarck was in favor of a limited war, with limited objectives, proportionate to the domestic political situation. It is no exaggeration to say that the decision to favor domestic political conditions, to the detriment of long-term strategic calculations, cost Germany its opportunity to become a world power and led to its defeat in both world wars.

Obviously, a veiled historical analogy was made here.

In 2022, Russia began a Kabinettskriege when it invaded Ukraine, ending up finding itself bogged down in something closer to a Volkskriege.[iv] Russia's mode of operation and war aims would have been immediately recognizable to a XNUMXth century statesman: the Russian professional army attempted to defeat the Ukrainian professional army and make limited territorial gains (the Donbass and recognition of the legal status of Crimea). The Russians called it a “special military operation.”

However, the Ukrainian regime decided – like the French national government of the Third Republic – to fight to the death. Faced with Bismarck's demands regarding Alsace-Lorraine, the French simply replied: “there can be no answer other than war to the contrary” (war to the extreme[v]). Vladimir Putin's cabinet war – limited war for limited objectives – has exploded into a national war.

Unlike Bismarck, however, Vladimir Putin chose to recognize Ukraine's elevation. Vladimir Putin's two decisions in autumn last year, to announce a mobilization and to annex disputed Ukrainian territories, amounted to tacit agreement with the Volkskriege Ukrainian. In the debate between von Moltke and Bismarck, Vladimir Putin chose to follow von Moltke's example and wage a war of extermination. No! – and once again it is necessary to emphasize this – this is not a war of genocide, but a war that will destroy Ukraine as a strategically capable entity. The seeds have already been planted and the fruits are beginning to sprout: the democide Ukrainian, induced by an exhausting war of attrition and the mass exodus of civilians in their prime; an economy in tatters; and a State that cannibalizes itself as it reaches the limits of its resources.

There is a model for this. Ironically, Germany itself. After World War II, the Allies decided that Germany – now blamed for two terrible conflagrations – would simply not be allowed to persist as a geopolitical entity. In 1945, after Hitler committed suicide, the Allies did not demand the spoils of a cabinet war. There were no major annexations here or there, no severely redrawn borders. Instead, Germany was annihilated: its territory was divided; their self-government was abolished; his people remained in dark exhaustion. His political form and his life then became the plaything of the victor. This was precisely what von Moltke wanted to do to France.

Vladimir Putin will not leave a geostrategically intact Ukraine, which may try to retake the Donbass and take revenge, or become a powerful forward base for NATO. Instead, he will turn it into a Trashcanistan that will never be able to fight a revenge war.

Clausewitz had warned us. He also wrote about the danger of national war. This is what he said about the French revolution: “Now the war was advancing with all its raw violence. (…) War was returned to the people who, to some extent, had been separated from it by professional armies. War has thrown off its shackles and surpassed the limits of what once seemed possible.”

*Big Serge is the journalistic pseudonym of an American military history analyst.

Translation: Ricardo Cavalcanti-Schiel.

Originally published in Big Serge Thought/ Substack.

Translator's notes


[I] The term originates in reference to the cabinet councils of European absolute monarchies, especially those that followed the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

[ii] The German term Volk can refer to both “people” and “nation”, as the realization of a Volksgeist (“spirit of the people”) deep. Considering that there is a marked difference between the recognition of “popular” according to the Germanic romantic intellectual tradition and according to the French Enlightenment tradition (in this respect, followed by the Anglo-American one), this translator preferred to translate the noun (male.) Volkskriege by “national war”, instead of translating it (in its literal appearance) by “popular war” (which, otherwise, would give it a mistaken revolutionary reverberation, due to the French matrix, as, in fact, mistakenly, it does the author of the article himself). The cultural construction of the idea of ​​nation began in Europe around the XNUMXth-XNUMXth centuries, and was largely nourished (especially, in legal terms, from the Second Scholastics of Salamanca) on the experience of the confrontation between European societies and native societies. of the New World, and assumed the prevalence of the categories of totality and, above all, of uniqueness (which, in the Iberian world, ultimate, necessarily incorporated the notion of hierarchy), beyond any remission naive to a hypostatized population “base”. Therefore, it is the “nation”, as a whole and one, that is at stake here. Neither “people” nor “State”.

[iii] Even though the idea of totaler Kriege is traditionally attributed to General Erich Ludendorff (and even retroactive to von Clausewitz), perhaps it was the Soviets who were most successful in building, based on their experience in the Second World War, a ethics, with consistent developments for operational art, of the most radical variant of Volkskriege. This Russian ethic of total war still permeates Russian social memory today, and creates a cultural environment of dispositions that largely explains the population's massive support for the military effort in Ukraine. For a canonical reference on the topic, see: SAPIR, Jacques. 2000. “Culture Soviétique de la Guerre”. In: Thierry de Montbrial & Jean Klein (ed's). Strategy Dictionary: 147-148. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. For a recent application of this concept to the scenario of the Ukrainian conflict and its broader geopolitical context, see thought-provoking article by Simplicius.

[iv] This means that considerations about the “function of war” (using, somewhat irresponsibly, the old trope of Florestan Fernandes) for the (discursive) construction of the nation in Ukraine in the post-Soviet space can also be broad. Strictly speaking, this is not much more than a truism, as demonstrated by academic works by Tarik Cyril Amar.

[v] In Spanish, the expression “happy” has become popular.war to death".


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