In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Militarism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Seminal Critiques
  • Journals

Military History Militarism
Ingo Trauschweizer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0099


Contemporary critics and scholars alike have associated militarism both with the military’s predominance in foreign policy and with the employment of military force, rhetoric, and symbols in order to ensure elite control of the populace. Two definitions from German scholars illustrate that range. Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence” (Benjamin 1978, cited under Seminal Critiques) holds that militarism is “the compulsory, universal use of violence as a means to the ends of the state” (p. 284). And for Alfred Vagts (A History of Militarism; Vagts 1959, cited under General Overviews), “militarism . . . presents a vast array of customs, interests, prestige, actions, and thought associated with armies and wars and yet transcending true military purposes. . . . It may permeate all society and become dominant overall industry and arts” (p. 13). More recently, Andrew Bacevich (The New American Militarism; Bacevich 2005, cited under Contemporary) has added an intriguing twist to the discussion of American militarism since the end of the Vietnam War: a shift of agency from the state and its military institutions to civil society, which had previously been regarded as a victim or consumer of militarism and not as one of its originators. As a practical matter, modern militarism evolved from the upheaval of the social, political, and industrial revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries in Western countries and in Japan. Industrialization and the rise of the lower classes threatened reactionary elites, the emergence of mass society forced the state to educate and indoctrinate its citizens, and technological advances made war more lethal and required both specialization of military functions and mass mobilization of society and economy. Proponents of the Sonderweg thesis argue that these developments were felt most intensely in Germany, where the modern nation-state was forged in war and where civil society was overtaken by nationalism and military culture. In public imagination, the two world wars firmly established Germany as the ideal type of modern militarism, in the sense of both aggression toward its neighbors and the predominance of military culture at home.

General Overviews

In the 19th century, militarism was an opposition concept that provided a rallying point for otherwise disparate groups of regime critics in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Only in the context of the world wars did it also become a scholarly category. The most thorough scholarly study of militarism as a historical phenomenon remains Vagts 1959, originally written against the backdrop of the rise of the dictatorships and the re-emergence of an aggressively militaristic Germany. Berghahn 1984 and Berghahn 2006 deepen the sense of modern militarism in 19th- and 20th-century European history but also point at its defeat and disappearance, while Carlton 2001 offers a longer historical perspective that transcends the divide between premodern and modern forms of militarism. Huntington 1957, Finer 1988, and Perlmutter 1977 each focus on civil-military relations and the roles of professional soldiers in modern states.

  • Berghahn, Volker R. Militarism: The History of an International Debate, 1861–1979. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

    Traces the evolution of European thought, which focuses on the militarization of society, and Anglo-American thought, which emphasizes civil-military relations and the question of civilian control of the military. Originally published in 1981.

  • Berghahn, Volker R. Europe in the Era of the Two World Wars: From Militarism and Genocide to Civil Society, 1900–1950. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.

    This an extended essay that summarizes Berghahn’s career work on militarism and the world wars. Argues that in 1900, militarism and antimilitarism were both prevalent and the turn to the world wars was not historically predetermined, concluding that the destruction of the world wars and an American vision of a world order based on commerce and prosperity combined to serve as antidote to militarism after 1945.

  • Carlton, Eric. Militarism: Rule without Law. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2001.

    Considers the causes and conditions of militarism from antiquity to the present. Carlton, a former paratrooper, an ordained minister, and a sociologist, sees militarism as a way of life in which military values become an end in themselves, and he considers a wide range of rulers that used militarism as the primary basis for their power.

  • Finer, Samuel E. The Man on Horseback: The Role of the Military in Politics. 2d ed. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1988.

    Classic discussion of the global phenomenon of military takeover of civilian governments in the Cold War era, particularly in developing states lacking the civilian administrative apparatus. Concludes that government needs to keep the military in check to ensure sound civil-military relations. Originally published in 1962; this is a revised and updated edition.

  • Huntington, Samuel P. The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957.

    One of the most influential works on civil-military relations and a book that remains a must-read for graduate students and a foil for political scientists and historians alike. Unlike Finer 1988, this work assumes that the professionalism of the officer corps will serve as an effective obstacle to military intervention in governance or even takeover of the state.

  • Perlmutter, Amos. The Military and Politics in Modern Times: On Professionals, Praetorians, and Revolutionary Soldiers. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977.

    Concludes that civil-military relations in any modern society can be understood in terms of some combination of the three kinds of soldiers depicted in the subtitle.

  • Vagts, Alfred. A History of Militarism: Romance and Realities of a Profession. New York: Meridian, 1959.

    Highly recommended as introduction to the problem throughout modern history. Vagts, a former German army officer turned émigré scholar in the United States, considers the professional officer corps under civilian oversight as an antidote to social militarization but also shows that in a militarized culture, the military itself loses its position of influence. Originally published in 1937.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.