The Discipline of Fear
The Glasgow Herald, 19 April 1915
The last report of the British "Eye Witness" at the front contained some interesting allusions to certain methods current in the German Army for the purpose of maintaining its cast-iron rigidity and its mechanical, it not its spiritual, efficiency. "The discipline," he writes, "is principally that of fear, the men being in positive terror of their officers, who behave with a kind of studied truculence more befitting slave-drivers than leaders of men … This is borne out by the use of the cat-o'-nine tails, which is well established, one of these instruments having been captured by us near Neuve Chapelle … Such," he continues, "is the fear of the officers and the general mistrust that the men do not even speak to one another of their grievances for fear that their complaints should reach the ears of their seniors. Of the outward forms and restraints of discipline there is no relaxation even in the trenches. When an officer passes the men must spring to attention and must remain with shouldered arms, without moving a muscle, perhaps for a quarter of an hour., while the officer in question is near them. When they are relieved from the trenches every spare moment is devoted to drilling and training. The slightest fault is punished with extreme severity, the offenders often being tied to a tree for hours together."
Such evidence as this—and of course it could be greatly simplified if one took the trouble to quote from the many descriptions given of the War Lord' legions in the days of peace—indicates that the German system has not travelled in the direction of leniency since the days of Frederick II, when, as Macauley states, "Military offences were punished with such barbarous scourgings that to be shot was considered by the Prussian soldier as a secondary punishment." Probably in the eighteenth century Frederick's system did not differ greatly in principle from that to be found elsewhere. The difference nowadays is that, whereas every civilized country has imported into its methods of discipline, however inflexibly they may be maintained, the mitigating qualities of reason and humanity, Germany adheres to the brutal and brutalising formulas of the past, steadily refusing to countenance the idea that men can be as readily, perhaps more easily, led than drive.
"A thorough knowledge of the secrets of human nature," says von der Goltz, "is very essential to a general. An army is a very sensitive body, not a lifeless instrument, or a set of chessmen to be moved backwards and forwards, according to calculation, until the enemy is checkmated. An army is subjected to many psychological influences, and its value varied according to its general feeling." Again, "The general must understand how to look into the hearts of soldiers, in order to estimate rightly what may be required of them at a given moment." Yet this authority makes nothing of his own text. He is so ignorant of human nature that he regards the best army as being that in which submissiveness and uniformity have been most fully attained. The explanation is that the German officer, and not the German soldier, constitutes the German Army. "Non-commissioned officers and soldiers rapidly come and go in the Army; its officers alone are the constant element by which tradition is handed down." The British officer who a few months ago publishes that instructive volume "The German Army From Within," states that "the German axiom is that the greatness of an army lies with its men." Speaking with a knowledge derived from experience with both armies, he asserts the firm conviction that "one British Tommy is the equal of three Germans of the same rank." A system which operates to destroy personal initiative in the ranks is obviously inferior to one in which individuality is encouraged, even if stress were not laid on the fact that the human material to begin with starts in the one case from a slavish docility and in the other from what is usually and alert and independent intelligence. The German private is merely "cannon food," while the all-important officer is too often typified by that Colonel Nicolay who last August was the murderer of the unfortunate Englishman, Mr. Henry Hadley. Incidentally the hope may be expressed that, provided the arms of the Allies do not anticipate the work of justice, this specimen of German Kultur may be brought to a stern account. One can readily conceive of such men, the authors of countless infamies in Belgium and France, rallying their men in their trenches with blows and with words used by Frederick to his flying troops—"Scum of the earth, do you want to live forever?"
The contrast in methods carries us back to fundamentals. It is not, as some may suppose, a question of conscription versus voluntary service, although it may be granted that the regime of the Junker would have short shrift in any volunteer army that we can imagine. There is conscription in every Continental country, yet so far as we know the discipline obtaining in the German Army stands in inglorious isolation, bearing no resemblance either to the paternalism of Russia or the camaraderie encouraged by the democratic Gallic spirit. It is the something wrong with German human nature, the primitive brute lying so near to the surface of Germany's ingeniously organised national life, that we detect using the forms of discipline to express itself. It is Heine's "braggart with the capacious maw, carrying like a corporal's staff, which he first dips in holy water before bringing it down on one's head" that we perceive—the rude and savage Prussian, who has learned nothing from human progress but the means for augmenting his rudeness and equipping his savagery with the diabolical resources of science. Grant this native imperviousness to the gentler virtues of the race, transfer to a State which exalts itself above every human institution all the ruthlessness of individuals whose culture is only skin-deep, and you get the German Army, a marvellously efficient machine, whose efficiency up to a certain point is the greater by its suppression of the units of which it is composed, even at the cost of their degradation and bruitalisation as human being. But one is inclined to wonder what enormities mat be possible to such a machine if by sudden reversion to the human nature it outrages it should turn upon its authors and engineers. The German Government have only known it as a victorious force or, at all events as a force in which the belief in victory is still strong. What will it be in the hour of defeat.