Book Review – Thomas Kühne, The Rise and Fall of Comradeship: Hitler’s Soldiers, Male Bonding and Mass Violence in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, UK: CUP, 2017)

Thomas Kühne’s book examines the practice, meaning, definition and idea of comradeship amongst German soldiers fighting in the Second World War.[1]

He defines comradeship as the ‘relationship people who cooperate, work, and live together not by choice but by coercion, accident or fate’. This is different from friendship that is rooted in the ‘self’ and is the ‘mutual sympathy of individuals’.[2]

The book examines comradeship on two distinct levels. Firstly, comradeship as a practice, in other words, the interaction between individuals in small groups through regular social relationships. Secondly, comradeship as a myth; specifically as a widely held idea, concept, or ideal. Comradeship in this context is a secondary group and abstract entity that can be defined by individuals or organisations. For example, comradeship may be a martial ideal defined by the Wehrmacht, the political idyll of the Voklsgemeinschaft (national community) propagated by the Nazi party, a historical interpretation of the past put forward by German veterans after the First World War, a social norm delineated by a group to inform collective behaviour or a subjective personally held concept that shapes the personal views and behaviour of individuals. Kuhne argues comradeship was a set of concentric circles around individuals pulling men into face-to-face communities and ‘secondary’ anonymous and imagined groups, such as those defined by the Wehrmacht or Nazi Party.[3]

The book is structured into three parts. In the first part, Kühne explores the ideas about comradeship that were operative in the inter-war period to explore what notions soldiers joining the Wehrmacht during the Second World War had grown up and how these concepts shaped their expectations of active service. For example, he argues that after the Great War, the idea of comradeship was widely adopted across the political spectrum in 1920s Germany. The political right saw comradeship of all social classes against a common enemy while the political left saw comradeship as the unity of the ‘common’ soldier against the aristocratic military hierarchy that was ultimately expressed in the 1918 revolution when sailors mutinied in Kiel against their officers. From 1933, the idea of comradeship was nationalised by the Nazi regime. Germany became a ‘state of comrades’, a racially defined national community.[4]

The middle section explores how comradeship was appropriated by soldiers during the war. Kuhne asks why did the Germans keep fighting until the end; what sustained them. He argues that comradeship was an important factor but not held by all servicemen. A small group of combatants, the Unsoldaten, the “un-soldiers,” kept their distance from the idea which they perceived as a threat to their self-identity and civilian bonds with friendship and family. These soldiers remained outsiders but had to conceal their opposition or fear denunciation or exclusion from the group. At the other extreme were a minority of fighters who enthusiastically experienced comradeship to the fullest and defined the military community as their true home and source of social life at the expense of civilian society or individual identity. These enthusiastic soldiers carried along the mass of the Wehrmacht soldiers, who were less involved in living out these ideals. Between these extremes were the majority of Wehrmacht personnel who were often ambivalent about promises of war and male solidarity. Many remained split between civilian and military identities and the front line and the home front. But again there was little opportunity to act out such inner uncertainty openly, other than in muddling through.[5] He argues comradeship could make active service a pleasant experience, contributed to keeping small groups together by promoting conformity and preventing dissent and helped soldiers endure the challenges of active service.[6]

The third part examines the idea of comradeship and how it was perceived after 1945 within Germany. Kühne’s argues that new meanings of comradeship emerged as veterans sought to hold up positive memories of war and military ideals in the face of the “stigma” of violence and genocide. Some soldiers argued that the comradeship of the war was an exercise in “practised democracy” and social harmony and associated comradeship with the values of humanity, solidarity, reconciliation, and egalitarianism that dominated the new democratic institutions of West Germany. Kühne suggests that notions of comradeship changed in Germany from the 1980s as more people linked male solidarity as a cause of the genocide and war crimes that were committed by the Wehrmacht.[7]

A problem with the book is its treatment of comradeship as an analytical category. Kuhne argues that the examination of comradeship from this perspective is to consider it as a ‘signifier of the soldiers’ social cohesion, their bonding, their group cultures in their units’. In other words, how did ‘real’ daily social face-to-face relationships between men in small groups or primary groups shape their attitudes and behaviour.[8] However, the book only explores comradeship in this sense as a ‘complement’ and this leads to a less than satisfactory result. A possible avenue of investigation could have been to consider how long relationships took to form, how men were initiated and socialised into new groups, the role and impact of NCOs and officers on comradeship and how relationships with a soldiers’ wider organisation shaped group dynamics. 

Another reflection is that, while this book focuses on the combatant in the line, there is very little combat or reflection on how the conditions of the front shaped group dynamics and motivation. For example, a constant thread in many veteran diaries, memoirs and letters is how men had to survive the extreme cold of the Russian winter, often without adequate food, shelter or winter clothing. For instance, Ernst Kern of the 4th Mountain Division describes how during one part of the war:

‘We did not know anymore which day of the week or what date it was. We were constantly exhausted. Nobody wasted a thought or a word on things that did not immediately relate to mere survival or the most primitive of needs. My memory of the following days blends fog, constant rain, battles and casualties, night marches, exhaustion, and bad morale with arguments even among best friends. In addition, we were tormented by hunger, which was tempered only if we could requisition food in the few villages that we passed’.[9]

Finally, the inclusion of SS accounts may have brought an interesting comparison to the understanding and definition of comradeship. Kuhne’s focus were soldiers of the Wehrmacht but given the highly racialised and politicised nature of the SS, a comparison of how SS members, officers and the organisation perceived and described comradeship may have been interesting.

However, the book’s contribution to the understanding of comradeship and small group cohesion is important.

It demonstrates how the idea of comradeship as an abstract ideal, defined by organisations, groups and individuals, shaped the experience of active service for millions of German soldiers and contributed to their morale, resilience and endurance during the Second World War. It also is the first serious scholarly attempt to examine interpersonal relationships within German forces for some years.

The book also makes the vital but often overlooked point that both primary group and secondary group relationships and allegiances interact and shape each other.[10] Much of the canon of scholarly work on Wehrmacht combat morale focuses on the role of a single dominant motivator. For example, Shils and Janowitz stress the importance of inter-group relationships over Nazi ideology in explaining why German army units fought so well.[11] On the other hand, Omer Bartov argues the reverse, stressing the importance of ideology over primary group theory.[12]

The final point is Kuhne’s observation about the importance of national culture, context and situation on shaping the nature and character of group motivation and comradeship. He points out that the German idea of comradeship was specific, contextual and unique, shaped by German culture, the political context and the experience of soldiers during the First World War.[13] Many may regard this a statement of the ‘bleedingly obvious’. However, in my own project (as of spring 2022) exploring the combat motivation of German soldiers (link), I started with my own assumptions about morale and motivation based on my own study of unit cohesion in the British Army during the Great War. I had presumed that morale and motivation would be very similar in the British experience as to the German but Kuhne’s work is a necessary corrective that has shown me the error of my ways!

 

Notes:

[1] Thomas Kühne, The Rise and Fall of Comradeship: Hitler’s Soldiers, Male Bonding and Mass Violence in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, UK: CUP, 2017), p.7.

[2] Ibid., p.291.

[3] Ibid., p.134.

[4] Ibid., pp.9-10.

[5] Ibid, pp.10-11.

[6] Ibid., pp.133, 137, 167, 193-201.

[7] Ibid, pp.11-12.

[8] Ibid., p.113.

[9] Ernst Kern, War Diary 1941-45: A Report (New York: Vantage, 1993), p.140.

[10] Ibid., pp.110-111.

[11] Edward. A. Shils & Morris Janowitz, ‘Cohesion and Disintegration in the Wehrmacht in World War II’, Public Opinion Quarterly 12 (Summer 1948), pp.280-315. See also, Martin Van Creveld, Fighting Power (London: Arms and Armour, 1982), pp.84-87.

[12] Omer Bartov, Hitler’s Army: Soldiers, Nazis, and War in the Third Reich: Soldiers, Nazis and War in the Third Reich (Oxford: OUP, 1992), pp.29-58.

[13] Kuhne,  p.199.