In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section German Army, 1871–1945

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • The Franco-Prussian War

Military History German Army, 1871–1945
Jeff Rutherford
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0072


From the founding of Bismarck’s Reich to the Gotterdämmerung of the Third Reich, the Prusso-German army proved to be perhaps the most enduring and important institution within the German state. Scholarly research on the army has followed three primary themes. First, its purely military exploits have generated numerous monographs, ranging from overviews of wars and campaigns to the development of its operational and tactical doctrine; its struggles with and exploitation of technology also fall within this type of analysis. Since the 1980s, this nearly exclusive focus on field marshals and their battles—a “chaps and maps” approach—has expanded to one that includes other aspects of the military experience, including the army’s politics and the mentalities of its soldiers. The former concerns the army’s relationship to state and society. While armies around the world have been subjected to this type of scrutiny, historians have particularly investigated the political machinations of the German army as it played such a pivotal role in three very different political systems—the monarchial Reich of Bismarck and Wilhelm II, the democracy of Weimar, and the Nazi dictatorship. In addition to its position within the state, the army’s relationship with society has also engendered scholarly attention as the age of total war demanded increasing army intervention on the home front. The third and most recent avenue of inquiry has focused on how individual soldiers experienced and understood the wars that they fought. Though such an analysis originally examined how soldiers withstood the rigors of industrialized war, the primary emphasis now attempts to unearth the ideological commitment of soldiers to their state and how this informed their actions during wartime. While both the Franco-Prussian War and World War I are receiving more attention from this perspective, the Schwerpunkt of this research has concentrated on the Wehrmacht during World War II.

General Overviews

Craig 1964 and Ritter 1970–1973 offer the most comprehensive political analyses of the German army from a liberal and conservative perspective, respectively. Citino 2005 provides the best purely military history of the army, while Kitchen 1975 expertly melds the two approaches. Wallach 1986 offers a penetrating analysis of the development of German operational thought and practice. Groß 2012 provides an excellent update on operations in the German military tradition. The period stretching from 1914 to 1945 receives strong coverage in Geyer 1986, an outstanding interpretive essay. Specific areas such as the historical development both of the officer corps and armament policies are covered in Demeter 1965 and Geyer 1984, respectively. Sigg 2014 examines the frequently discussed, if not always understood, concept of Auftragstaktik at the tactical level. Pöhlmann 2016 examines the development of the mechanization of war, centered on the tank, from its earliest conceptions up through the end of the Second World War.

  • Citino, Robert. The German Way of War: From the Thirty Years’ War to the Third Reich. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2005.

    In lively prose, Citino traces the long-term patterns and thinking that animated German military practice from the mid-17th century to the final destruction of the German Reich in 1945, persuasively identifying the threads of a German way of war. Appropriate for undergraduate students.

  • Craig, Gordon. The Politics of the Prussian Army: 1640–1945. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964.

    Despite being dated in some of its interpretations, this remains the standard examination of the Prusso-German army from 1871 to 1945. Craig expertly details the army’s increasingly pernicious effect on the political and social evolution of the German state.

  • Demeter, Karl. The German Officer-Corps in State and Society, 1650–1945. Translated by Angus Malcolm. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1965.

    Originally published in 1962 as Das deutsche Offizierkorps in Gesellschaft und Staat, 1650–1945 (Frankfurt: Bernard & Graefe), this study examines the long-term development of a “German” officer corps. While the sections on the Weimar and Nazi periods have been superseded, Demeter’s earlier examinations remain useful.

  • Geyer, Michael. Deutsche Rüstungspolitik 1860–1980. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1984.

    Broad survey of German armament policies that places them in the context not only of the international constellation but also within the shifting domestic terrains.

  • Geyer, Michael. “German Strategy in the Age of Machine Warfare, 1914–1945.” In Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age. Edited by Peter Paret, 527–597. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986.

    Geyer’s innovative and extremely suggestive essay examines the development of German military thinking during the era of total war. The army’s evolution from an important component of the Reich’s leadership into a technocratic organization whose focus narrowed to mere operational and tactical thought constitutes an important theme in the essay.

  • Groß, Gerhard P. Mythos und Wirklichkeit: Die Geschichte des operativen Denkens im deutschen Heer von Moltke d. Ä. bis Heusinger. Paderborn, Germany: Ferdinand Schöningh, 2012.

    A recent excellent examination of operational thought in the Prusso-German army, from the mid-19th century up through the early days of the Bundeswehr by its foremost historian.

  • Kitchen, Martin. A Military History of Germany: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present Day. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975.

    Kitchen places military issues and operations within the context of larger political, social, and economic developments. While not as comprehensive on the evolution of military doctrine and battlefield experiences as Citino 2005, it provides much more detail on the integration of German military history into German history as a whole.

  • Pöhlmann, Markus. Der Panzer und die Mechanisierung des Krieges: Eine deutsche Geschichte 1890 bis 1945. Paderborn, Germany: Ferdinand Schöningh, 2016.

    A wide-ranging analysis of the tank and of mechanization in Germany that puts the weapons system into larger cultural, political, and military contexts.

  • Ritter, Gerhard. The Sword and the Sceptre: The Problem of Militarism in Germany. 4 vols. Translated by Heinz Norden. London: Lane, 1970–1973.

    Originally published as Staatskunst und Kriegshandwerk: Das Problem des “Militarismus” in Deutschland between 1959 and 1968 (Munich: Oldenbourg), Ritter’s first volume covers the period from 1740 to 1890, while the remaining three analyze the years 1890 to 1914. Provides an examination of the German army from a conservative viewpoint.

  • Sigg, Marco. Der Unterführer als Feldherr im Taschenformat: Theorie und Praxis der Auftragstaktik im deutschen Heer 1869 bis 1945. Paderborn, Germany: Ferdinand Schöningh, 2014.

    An extremely important study of the evolution of tactical leadership in the Prusso-German army and its effect on Prussia and Germany’s battlefield success.

  • Wallach, Jehuda. The Dogma of the Battle of Annihilation: The Theories of Clausewitz and Schlieffen and Their Impact on the German Conduct of Two World Wars. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1986.

    An analysis of how the ideas of Clausewitz and Schlieffen both complemented and contrasted one another during German experiences during the two world wars. Highlights the army’s shift toward Schlieffen’s focus on operations at the expense of politics and the catastrophic results of this development.

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