Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany by Isabel Hull is a problematic and contradictory book. It is a good example of what happens when a historian begins with a thesis and then shoehorns data to fit that thesis. Hull’s core argument is that the Imperial German military (between the years 1904 and 1918) practiced institutional extremism, which led to the unchecked extermination of civilian populations in Africa and Europe. The unlimited application of violence defined that extremism. This made the German military unique among the militaries of other European powers. She set out to show, “how and why the institution designed to wield controlled violence exceeded the reasonable, effective, or goal-oriented limits of its use.”
According to Hull, there were three reasons the use of violence appeared unchecked: the German military’s separation from civilian institutions, the use of violence through “quasi-automatic mechanisms,” and an institutional gravitation toward total solutions―“the establishment of perfect order and complete obedience by the enemy population” in a permanent form.
To prove her thesis, Hull examined the behavior of the German military in Southwest Africa (present day Namibia), German military culture, and the behavior of the German military during the First World War. She drew from a large number of German sources and personal letters, as well as the philosophy of Hannah Arendt.
To characterize the behavior of the German military during this period, Hull chose the 1903 Herero uprising in Southwest Africa. After the Herero tribe rose up against German colonial rule, Kaiser Wilhelm gave Lt. General Lothar von Trotha absolute authority to put down the rebellion. Free from civilian restraints, von Trotha prosecuted the war according to conventional German military tradition and demanded the complete submission of the Herero; an expectation for victory that was “unreasonably high,” according to Hull.
Lt. General von Trotha’s plan for complete victory over the Herero in one single battle failed, so he ordered a long and painful pursuit of the survivors into the desert. Prisoners of war were interned in camps where they were treated inhumanely.
Because the idea of a “knock out” blow was so entrenched in German military thinking, Hull argues, the German military was logistically unprepared for a long war, leading it to exploit the resources of occupied territories. Lack of long term planning led to improvised tactics to subdue the enemy population. The military employed violence as a short-term solution, often taking the form of prison camps for civilians that lacked basic supplies. This gap between the goal of total victory and lack of preparation was a fatal flaw in German strategy. “This gap is so great that failure seems, in retrospect, to have been preprogrammed,” she argued.
Missing from this analysis is a comparison with other colonial powers during the period. Was the German military’s treatment of the Herero any more brutal than British or French responses to colonial uprisings? How do we know the Herero uprising wouldn’t have dragged on longer if the German military had been more restrained? How did the distance between Germany and its African colony affect military logistics? The answer to any of these questions could seriously undermine Hull’s argument.
Contradictions also plague Absolute Destruction. For example, Hull claimed Germany entered the First World War without war aims, and then went on to dismiss the war aims given by the German government as “unattainable” and “a negative goal.” Aside from the fact that preservation of a nation, territorial ambition, or defeat of a powerful rival have long been used as legitimate war aims, you cannot claim something does not exist and then criticize it.
In another example, she undermined her notion that the German military went unchecked by civilian institutions when she described how the German General Staff’s plan for a “final struggle” (endkampf), which was never carried out, “had to be stopped by external intervention, from the cabinet, the Reichstag, and popular revolt.” If civilian institutions stopped the German General Staff’s plan for a “final struggle,” how was it operating “unchecked”?
Isabel Hull failed to provide convincing evidence that the unlimited application of violence was unique to the German military during the period. Furthermore, her characterization of the German General Staff as robotically adhering to doctrine regardless of effectiveness during the First World War disregarded the success and ingenuity of German tactics in the face of unfavorable numerical odds. For a much better analysis of German military culture and the German General Staff, I recommend Trevor N. Dupuy’s A Genius for War.