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Cultures of Violence – Insights from work towards a systematic approach to military violence

Prof. Sönke Neitze and Dr. Alex Kay (background).
Australian soldiers near Ypern in October 1917.
Photo : Kevin Ryl
Prof. Sönke Neitze and Dr. Alex Kay.
Photo : Wikimedia/gemeinfrei
Australian soldiers near Ypern in October 1917.

Deportation, torture, and killing: How has the use of violence changed or even become radicalized in the armies of the great European powers? What has been distinctive? Which patterns have played a decisive role? These are the questions that the DFG project “Military Cultures of Violence” is investigating - with the aim of creating a systematic description and explanation of the different patterns of soldiers’ actions in war. The research focuses on the use of physical violence in times of war as well as in times of peace. In an interview, historians Prof. Dr. Sönke Neitzel and Dr. Alex Kay explain the project.

Prof. Neitzel, your chair not only does research on military history, but also on the cultural history of violence. What does that mean?

Neitzel: The expansion of military history at the University of Potsdam by the cultural history of violence goes back to my predecessor Bernhard R. Kroener. He changed the denomination of the chair, and I think this addition makes a lot of sense. When we ask what culture is, we could talk about it endlessly. It is not about high culture. We rather understand culture as collective patterns of thought, perception, and action that characterize a society, and thus also the use of violence. Violence does not just happen. It is determined and framed by collective patterns. We are interested in exactly these patterns that both define the discourse on violence and evoke action. That is why we ask what is behind the use of violence. In this respect, the cultural history of violence provides the ideal framework for our research project.

When historians work on violence, genocide, war crimes, and massacres, the focus is on individual phenomena that were extremely brutal and were often committed far away from the big empires, for example in colonial wars. The regular military forces of the major European powers have not yet been considered under this question. Thus, the use of violence in the Seven Years’ War in Europe has not been a topic so far; for example, how brutally the Prussian and Russian armies are said to have fought each other. This is where the DFG project comes in. We know from propaganda that things were supposedly more brutal in the so-called Turkish Wars, when the Habsburgs fought against the Ottoman Empire. We can reconstruct the discourses, but was it really like that? We hope to find relevant sources and to look behind the scenes of public discourse.

How do you proceed?

Neitzel: Due to a rather long timespan from 1683 to 1945, we cannot examine everything. That is why we first had to narrow down the concept of violence. We concentrate on physical violence. It is mainly about the killing of soldiers and civilians, and about rape. Then we focus on three areas: direct combat at the front, behind the lines in the occupied territories, and violence against one's own soldiers. Especially in the early modern period there was corporal punishment; deserters were put up against the wall and shot. These are also forms of violence that will be examined. We are only looking at the regular armed forces. Other historians have studied irregular armies such as auxiliary forces or militias. By now, there are several studies on this. We, however, want to close the research gap and focus on the large armies in Europe: What did the military forces do in the wars and what did they not do? Surprisingly, this has not been researched. So, it is not about the Boer War or the Herero Uprising - at most, how this influenced the wars in Europe but not about the colonial wars per se.

Kay: For my habilitation, my post-doctoral qualification, I am examining the culture of violence in the British armed forces and comparing it to the Canadian army to see if there was an Empire-wide, common culture of violence or whether there are differences between the British and the Canadians.

Neitzel: We also have a PhD student from Stellenbosch in our team who is studying the culture of violence among South African soldiers during the same period.

Kay: For me, this means examining the two world wars as well as the years between them. It is important to note that we focus on land forces. We don’t look at atrocities committed from the air. There was no air force in the early modern period, so we have a level playing field for all sub-projects. I’ve only recently returned from London, where I spent eleven weeks in archives, mainly the National Archives. I looked at many war diaries, both of individual soldiers and officers and of units, memoirs and letters sent from the front back home to families. And I found some sources that I will work with. That is always a special moment when you discover something you haven’t seen in the literature before. In London, there were moments like that …

What are the topics of the sub-projects and how did you decide on the priorities?

Neitzel: It is a complex task to plan such a research group with eight sub-projects. The members must have expertise in the topic and must not be spread across too many locations. They should be able to reference each other in their studies. For example, we cooperate with the historian Prof. Dr. Marian Füssel from the University of Göttingen. So, the Seven Years’ War was set. Dr. Alex Kay and I have already done a lot of work on the Germans in the First and Second World Wars and numerous studies are available about them. Therefore, the topic is excluded from the sub-projects, but will be taken up again in the final volume. There are still no studies at all on British war crimes in the Second World War ...

Kay: What really surprised me – and what I recently presented my initial research findings on – was the extent of prisoner killing on the part of the British in the First World War. This was a widespread phenomenon but has hardly been mentioned in the literature so far. There are a few articles on it but no systematic study. Many historians still see the First World War as a “gentleman's” war, in which there were hardly any atrocities and something like the shooting of prisoners only happened occasionally. But that was not the case, as I have now been able to discover in the archives. This will be a focal aspect of my habilitation. Interestingly, there were far fewer atrocities committed by the British during the Second World War than by the Canadians.

Neitzel: Dr. Kay already addressed elsewhere that the British were apparently the only ones who showed restraint and scaled down violence in the Second World War, while all other military forces became radicalized.

Kay: Except for aerial warfare – there, things looked different. But I have also discovered sources about the war on the ground regarding the actions of the British in Greece. At the end of the Second World War (1944/45) – after the withdrawal of the Wehrmacht – the British became the occupying power in Greece and deported young Greeks to Egypt. I didn’t know that before. The British set up a prisoner-of-war camp in Egypt and deported thousands of Greeks, including hundreds of children and adolescents. I discovered this in the archives. Among them were suspected insurgents and communists. I am also planning a section on this in my study. I will also look at the Burma campaign in the Second World War. Here, the British fought against the Japanese in what is now Myanmar. It is said that there were executions of prisoners. But it is difficult to verify this because there were very few prisoners. The Japanese rarely surrendered.

Why can the research project close a gap?

Neitzel: Individual massacres in wars have already been studied. But what are the implications? That humans are capable of terrible acts? We know that. Or are there situational explanations for why people commit massacres in wars under certain conditions? General conclusions have been a taboo until now because no one wanted to be accused of an existentialist understanding of culture – along the lines of “Germans always act in a particularly barbaric way or ‘the Russian’ is cruel.” But how do the so-called long lines present themselves? Are there specific national discourses, patterns of action, or an understanding of law that does not exist in other countries? Or does it all depend on the specific circumstances of a given period? The aim is to bring together the findings on military violence in a comparative way in order to find answers to the open questions: Do certain cultures of violence exist in a nation or state? How do they develop? Are they similar in different countries or do they differ depending on the culture? What acts of violence result from this? Individual researchers cannot do this. No one can scientifically study six countries based on these questions. The format of a research group is a huge advantage here. Historians usually tend to be loners who retreat to their offices and archives, are not seen for three years, and then publish a book. But this kind of project would not be possible without collaborative research.

Kay: I joined the project when it was already clear that the British would be part of the research. So far, I have mainly worked on National Socialism and the Weimar Republic. I focus on state-organized violence: What are the mechanisms behind it? Are orders or action on the spot decisive? What forms of interaction exist? Originally, my sub-project was supposed to be about the Second World War and the Korean War. But the temporal focus seemed too short to me. It is more exciting to include the First World War and the interwar period. In this way, important discourses can be included – such as the violence of the British in Ireland and India. There were debates in British politics and society, for example, that may have contributed to a reduction in the use of transgressive violence in the Second World War. But I need to study that in more detail.

How can the current war in Ukraine be included in the research project?

Neitzel: We also have two sub-projects dealing with Russia, one on the Seven Years’ War and the other on the role of the Cossacks in the regular armed forces of the First and Second World Wars. The latter is led by Prof. Dr. Jan C. Behrends from the Leibniz Centre for Contemporary History Research in Potsdam and the European University Viadrina. As an expert on Russia, he closely follows the use of violence in Ukraine. Comparative aspects will certainly be integrated. For example, whether there are patterns of action or parallels that emerged in the world wars and are being continued by the Russian army today. Here we again return to the fundamental central questions about continuities: Are there national cultures of violence or not? Are there particular moments – situations – of a war that determine the use of violence? Such comparisons, especially with regard to Eastern Europe, do not yet exist in the scholarship. We can also provide our analytical framework and show how we study violence. Of course, we do not know exactly what happened in the Ukrainian town of Bucha. The empirical evidence must be provided by others - secret services, international law experts, the United Nations. But we can provide support through historical knowledge and methods.

What do you ultimately expect for history?

Neitzel: The result should be more than just the bundling of sub-projects. It is about finding answers and perhaps even a systematic approach to the big questions about the patterns behind violence. That is why the exchange in the research group is so important. We had various workshops where we presented and discussed the sub-projects. In addition, lectures by external historians, who are not involved in the research project, gave new impulses. In the winter semester 2022/23, we had the work phase and so discussion rounds took place less frequently. We are planning more intensive exchange in the coming months.

Kay: It is important that we all discuss the various sub-projects together as a group. This is a very lively process and provides the researchers with ideas and feedback for their own studies.

Neitzel: We will certainly apply for a second funding phase. Especially for the two postdoc projects, the schedule is extremely tight. But I am optimistic that Dr. Kay will keep to the schedule. He has already published several books and is an experienced colleague. For the PhD students, on the other hand, it’s their first book, which is always a big challenge. But the overall conditions could not be better.

The Project

The project “Military Cultures of Violence: Illegitimate Military Violence from the Early Modern Period to the Second World War” is funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) and includes eight sub-projects. Six of them are intended for doctoral studies. The research group involves Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Freie Universität Berlin, the Leibniz Center for Contemporary History (ZZF), and the universities in Göttingen and Bochum. The research group is also collaborating with the Centre for Military History and Social Sciences of the Bundeswehr (ZMSBw) in Potsdam. Spokesperson of the research group is Prof. Sönke Neitzel.

The Researchers

Prof. Dr. Sönke Neitzel has been Professor of Military History/Cultural History of Violence at the University of Potsdam since 2015. His research focuses, among other things, on the history of the German Armed Forces (Bundeswehr) in an international perspective.
Email: soenke.neitzeluni-potsdamde

Dr. Alex Kay studied history in Huddersfield, Sheffield, and Berlin. He has taught at the University of Potsdam since 2017. Since 2022, he has been a fellow in the research group “Military Cultures of Violence”. He has written several books about the extermination policy of the Nazis.
Email: alex.kayuni-potsdamde


This text was published in the university magazine Portal Wissen - One 2023 „Learning“ (PDF).


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