Review of Absolute Destruction by Isabel Hull

Hull, Isabel V. Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2004.


In Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany, author Isabel V. Hull deals with the effects of the military culture and standard practices of the Imperial German Army in producing extreme violence towards civilians consistently from the unification of Germany through World War I, regardless of the theatre of war. Hull is a historian at Cornell University specializing in Germany from 1700 - 1945, focusing on sociopolitics, political theory, and gender & sexuality, and is widely recognized for her deep knowledge in the field. 

I was drawn to this work for its potential insights into organizational culture and its applications in a military context. Hull’s primary argument is that systemic elements of Imperial German military culture, the interaction with the civilian government (or lack thereof), and standard operating procedures led to dysfunctional extremes of violence towards civilians, without any substantial top-down strategic or ideological direction.

I found her book a remarkable case study in using organization theory and organizational culture to arrive at important insights about the behavior of a military in a historical context, leading to several conclusions that would be hidden or at least less obvious using other methods of analysis.

Summary of Content

Hull opens the book with a general outline of the coming work and an introduction to organization theory and organizational culture. In laying out the structure, she states her thesis that the German military repeatedly descended into dysfunctional extremism that did not serve Germany’s political goals or meet international norms of the time, and explains how the work will demonstrate that.

She then moves into a detailed explanation of the German war against the Herrero and other native peoples in German South West Africa (modern Namibia) and how it progressed into the effective annihilation of entire peoples. The behavior demonstrated in German Southwest Africa is presented as a dark preview of what to expect in World War I, with these so called “small wars” different in degree, rather than in kind as claimed by many contemporaries.

The case study is followed by an analysis of what forces were seen at work in the form of German Military Culture and how that culture developed. German military culture is compared and contrasted with other contemporary European militaries, acknowledging the many similarities, but especially highlighting the uniquely German characteristics. Hull draws the connection between these distinctive features with several formative events, such as the decisive battle of Koniggratz and the conduct of the Franco-Prussian war, and shows how certain patterns of thinking and approaches to problems were celebrated, enshrined, and propagated as institutional and cultural norms. 

Next, the book provides a detailed analysis of the same behaviors seen in German South West Africa being used against Europeans in World War I. In short, the same extremes of subordinating civilians to “military necessity” and pursuing seemingly rational goals (like forced labor) repeatedly ran to dysfunctional extremes due to German military cultural traits, such as leaving logistics to chance, putting the needs of soldiers over the needs of civilians, expecting military levels of discipline and control from civilians, and using force as the default answer to all challenges. Hull shows that these military cultural assumptions ran all the way to the top, with the Army’s focus on tactical and operational methods substituting for any sort of actual national level strategy, all the way from the Schlieffen plan through to punishing last months of the war.

Finally, the book offers several conclusions and contrasts them with other common explanations for the behavior of the Imperial German Army, such as the roles of technology, ideology, and imperialism, concluding that these contributing factors are not satisfactory causal explanations when compared with the organization and culture of the military and its place in the Wilhelmian constitution. 

Analysis and Evaluation of the Book

I find Hull’s argument that organizational culture better explains the behaviors of the Imperial German Army than other explanatory theories quite compelling, and in the process of building her case, she shares several insights that are usefully applied to analysis of other complex organizations.

First, her approach emphasizes a “bottom up” view of the organization in question - looking at the actual actions and situations faced by the members of the organization fulfilling its raison d’etre. The bottom up approach is most extensively applied in the detailed analysis of the German Southwest Africa war. I initially found this section a bit tedious, as I was eager to get to the theoretical conclusions, but I later realized its in-depth analysis was essential for demonstrating that the observed behaviors emerged from assumptions and SOPs organically, and were not the product of the admittedly racist ideology of the German commander. The analysis includes an ongoing focus on default modes of action, the kinds of attitudes and behaviors encouraged by training, and the effects of hidden assumptions, all supported by extensive quotes and references to the primary sources. 

Though Hull's analysis begins from the bottom, it does continue all the way up to the highest levels. An especially acute example is the complex interplay between Germany’s geo-political position and its tactical and operational approaches. Germany was  a relatively small country surrounded by large, rich countries, which meant that its smaller military had to be highly effective. To be effective, this military had to take risks to overcome France or Russia’s intrinsic advantages - such as seizing the initiative by doing the unexpected and acting aggressively. Such behavior paid off tactically and operationally, most famously at the battles of Koniggratz and Sedan. To encourage this behavior, however, the German military encouraged a “can do” attitude to the point of irrational optimism as a necessary characteristic for soldiers at all levels. This default assumption and the organizational norms that supported it - such as punishing errors of hesitation far more harshly than errors of aggression - produced dysfunctional behavior all the way from massacring civilians to entering World War I without any clearly articulated war aims.

Secondly, this work demonstrates how irrational courses of action can be usefully explained for historical and institutional reasons provided by organization theory and organizational culture. Tactical and operational successes in several wars, especially those early in the formation of the military, such as the success against the French in 1870-1871, created a set of practices and assumptions that were deeply held and seemingly self-evident. When these practices and assumptions were extrapolated up to the strategic level, they had disastrous effects.
Third, Hull highlights how much of the German military’s culture, institutions, and behaviors can be linked to it’s place in the German Imperial constitution. I found this conclusion an especially useful reminder than any given organization operates in a wider context that often determines much of the behavior of the organization. Due to the military’s role as the guarantor of the Kaiser’s supremacy, it was largely firewalled off from the rest of the government, and relied on a highly skilled Kaiser or chancellor to coordinate with the other arms of state. This structural separation resulted in remarkably poor coordination between foreign policy and the military, or even in coordination of national strategic goals of any kind. I found this disconnect especially shocking in the direct cultural heirs to Clausewitz’s famous definition of war as essentially political in aim. 

The lack of connection did not merely create an organization that paid little heed to the aims of the civilian government, the insularism went both ways - the civilian government deferred to the military as the “experts” and without civilian input, the military assumed its strategic assessments built on operational and tactical assumptions were correct. The most disturbing result of the disconnect was the near-complete lack of civilian intervention to curb violence against civilians - it was just another matter of “military necessity."

In the absence of clear national strategic goals provided by the civilian leadership or the Kaiser, the German military attempted to take what it knew best - tactical and operational effectiveness - and apply it to strategic goals. Hence the tactically effective method of holding the enemy while flanking them to deliver a decisive blow and the operationally effective method of defeating one foe completely before engaging decisively with the next were elevated to national strategy in the form of the Schlieffen plan. Most surprising and shocking to me was to learn that Germany went to war in 1914 with no war aims beyond defeat of the French and Russian militaries - and defeat was defined as a decisive battle of annihilation, as demonstrated in their heroic tales of Koniggratz and Sedan. 

As the war went on, this strategic blindness became even stronger, culminating in the discussion of an Endkampf - a final all or nothing battle which would risk the actual destruction of Germany as a country and a people rather than surrender. Hull shows the clear linkage between tactical-level behaviors and norms - an almost irrational “can do” attitude, being rewarded for aggressive risk taking, and willingness to sacrifice life - up to this national level outcome. 

The role discussed of formative experiences and building organizational “myths” - the stories members of an organization tell each other and themselves about about “who we are” was also especially illuminating. This same dynamic is well discussed in Bureacracy by James Q. Wilson, who also emphasizes the role of forceful personalities in the early days of an organization. 

Despite my general agreement with Hull’s conclusions, the argument I found least compelling was that violence as a means tends inexorably towards violence as an end in itself. The general argument that violence will inevitably devolve into its own end was weakly supported and amounted more to an assertion of a position than a clear argument. To be fair, this assertion relies heavily on Hannah Arendt’s position in On Violence, an essay with which I am as yet unfamiliar - perhaps it is better supported in the cited work. I did find parts of the argument convincing, though. Specifically, the idea that force is the military’s job, and therefore it will look to that as the default solution (in the same sense of “if all you have is a hammer. . .”), and that such a default position will lead to an escalation of violence if the military is left to its own devices, was an especially interesting one. I did not, however, find the totalizing argument that such is an underlying truth of military and human violence to be adequately supported.


Overall, Absolute Destruction is a fascinating example of the usefulness of Organization Theory as an analytical approach within military history. It nicely balances empirical examples in the form of the case studies of German Southwest Africa and World War I with a theoretical analysis of German military culture. Several of the conclusions of its analysis provide valuable insight into organizations more widely (such as the effects of formative events and myth-making, coordination with higher level organizations, and how day-to-day practices become defining factors in higher level decision-making). An excellent read for anyone interested in understanding the underpinnings of World War I, how organizational culture can have extreme effects, or seeing how political and organizational structure can produce unexpected outcomes. 

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