German Stormtroopers (First World War)

German Stormtroopers (First World War)

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German Stormtroopers (First World War)

One of the major developments of the First World War was the stormtrooper. These were assault troops trained in squads as trench fighters and formed by individual regiments from 1915 with the Sturm-Bataillone being developed in late 1915 early 1916. Each of these Sturm-Bataillone consisted of 2-4 companies with a machine gun, flame-thrower and mortar or Minenwerfer companies. This raised the old and still on going argument against elite formations , that is that by concentrating the best men in these companies the quality of the normal infantry decreased, this led to most of these storm battalions being broken up. It is important not to confuse these troops with the shock divisions used in 1917-18 who were chosen to make counter attacks rather than defend like ordinary divisions.

Books on the First World War |Subject Index: First World War

Why did the German Spring Offensive of 1918 fail?

General Erich Ludendorff's German Spring Offensive of 1918 was one of the last great offensives of the First World War and an abject failure. When the offensive ultimately failed, and the allies were able to beat back the German attacks. The German Spring Offensive of 1918 was the last effort by Germany to win the war, and its failure meant that the Central Powers had effectively lost. If the Spring Offensive had succeeded in the outcome of the war and the course of history in the Twentieth Century would have been very different. The German Spring Offensive stalled for a variety of reasons including inadequate supplies, stubborn Allied defensive tactics, an over-reliance on German Stormtroopers, and the German military overestimation of their offensive capabilities.


The German army was under the direction of General Erich Ludendorff, by this stage in the war, his old collaborator Field Marshall von Hindenburg was only nominally German Chief of Staff. He was the mastermind of the Spring offensive in 1918, which is often referred to as the "Ludendorff Offensive." [1] On the face of it, Germany and the Central Powers were in a strong position in early 1918.

After the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Russians had withdrawn from the war, and the Germans had secured new territory in the east. Romania had been defeated, and Italy and Greece were no longer a threat. By 1918, it was clear that the Great War would be decided on the western front. [2] The German command knew that after America joined the war, they could potentially tip the balance in favor of the allies. By early 1918, the Americans had already begun to make a difference on the western front. Germany was concerned that if they were allowed to build up their strength, the allies could inflict a decisive defeat on Imperial Germany.

Furthermore, as a result of the allied naval blockade, Germany was on the brink of starvation. Unrest and labor strikes had become common in German cities. [3] Ludendorff was in a race against time because Germany had to defeat Britain and France quickly or they faced almost certain defeat. Ludendorff believed that they had only one last chance to strike a decisive blow against the allies before it was too late. He was a realist and knew that the situation was grave for Germany. [4] The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk allowed the German Army to transfer some 50 divisions from the eastern to western front, in early 1918. Ludendorff decided to use these divisions in his last offensive and force the Allies to sue for peace. [5]


Germany first shifted fifty divisions by rail from the east to the western front. Ludendorff decided that the goal of the offensive would be to divide the British and the French armies. The British were mainly based in northern France, while the French army was located in the center and east of France. The Germans wanted to drive a wedge between the British and the French. They intended to drive the British back to the Channel Ports. Concurrently, the German command planned to seize the remaining ports in Belgium. They hoped that by defeating the British that they would seek peace terms with Germany and after capitulating, the French would be forced to negotiate with Berlin. Also, this outcome would persuade the Americans to seek a negotiated settlement with the Germans. The Germans knew that it was almost impossible for them to achieve outright victory and that their only hope was some form of advantageous negotiated settlement. [6]

The German strategy relied on the widespread use of Stormtrooper units and formations. These were highly mobile soldiers who would storm the allies’ trenches and then attack their rear, disrupting supply lines and communications and especially destroying artillery. The Stormtroopers were the elite forces of the German army. The best men were used to form these units, and they received specialized training and advanced weaponry. [7] They were to be used as the spearhead of the German advance. The German command hoped that the Stormtroopers would quickly occupy key strategic positions. The speed of the Stormtroopers was expected to deliver victory on the western front. The Germans also used short, massive bombardments before the assaults, a tactic that had been previously used with great success on the eastern front.

The Offensive

The Offensive took place throughout one hundred days, and four or five major battles are identifiable during this phase of the war. The first major operation of the Spring Offensive was Operation Michael. On 21 March 1918, the German Stormtroopers launched an attack against the British Fifth Army and the right wing of the British Third Army. By the end of the first day, the British had suffered some 50,000 casualties, and the Germans had broken through at several points.

The British Fifth Army after two days was in full retreat and the Third Army was also forced to withdraw from its positions as its commanders feared being surrounded by the Germans. The French dispatched several divisions to halt the German advance, and they helped to slow and eventually to halt the German advance. The German attack had achieved real and substantive gains, but it was not a decisive defeat for the British in particular, who regrouped and established a new line of defenses. [8]

The British were forced to send their reserve units to support the British Third and Fifth Armies. This shift left them very weak on their flanks, especially in the sectors around the Channel Ports. The Germans targeted the Portuguese Second Division. The Portuguese were spread very thin and expected to hold a very long line. The Germans launched a brutal artillery assault on their positions, and the Portuguese Division fled. [9]

The Stormtroopers soon entered the breach in the line and pushed several miles towards the Channel Port of Dunkirk. Fearing that they were being outflanked, the British Divisions withdrew and formed a new defensive line on the River Lys. It was feared that if this line did not hold, then the Germans could press forward and take the Channel Ports. Had the Germans succeeded this could have dealt a decisive blow to the Allied war effort. The French again sent reinforcements, but before they even arrived the Germans had come to a halt, as their supply lines became overextended. [10]

The Germans then turned their attention to the area where the British and the French lines met. Ludendorff wanted the Stormtroopers to drive a wedge between the two armies. The Germans after a brief, but heavy bombardment, attacked several weakened British Divisions in and around Reims. They pushed them back many miles, and the Stormtroopers almost advanced to the Marne, causing people to flee from Paris. [11] Once again the German advance stalled and they were not able to push towards Paris. The Germans then immediately turned their attention to the French army and launched a surprise attack on French positions near Amiens. This was once again successful at least initially, but a French counterattack, supported by the Americans, halted the Germans in May 1918. [12]

The Germans had so far had some real success. Ludendorff was aware that he needed to inflict a decisive defeat on the allies. They had already received more support from the Americans than expected, and this concerned the German High Command. They decided to try one last all-out assault to break the allies will to fight and bring them to the negotiating table. This attack was called by Ludendorff "the Peace Offensive" because they believed that if it succeeded, it would lead to a peaceful resolution of the war in Germany’s favor. The Germans attacked the French and the British in and around the River Marne in mid-July 1918, this battle is sometimes referred to as the Second Battle of the Marne. [13] The French had strongly fortified this sector to protect Paris. The Germans had lost many of their best men, and they were running low on supplies.

Moreover, they had lost the element of surprise, and a German prisoner had informed them of where and when the attack would take place. This German assault, unlike the earlier attacks, did not yield any significant results and the French lines held. Ludendorff had to evacuate some divisions fearing they would be outflanked and this ended the German Spring Offensive.

Outcome of the Offensive

This series of attacks yielded large territorial gains for the Germans, at least when compared to previous offensives. The Germans did not inflict a decisive defeat on the allies, and they failed to drive a wedge between the British and the French. Additionally, they utterly failed to force them to the negotiating table. [14] The territory that the Germans had gained meant that they had an extended their supply lines. Their army was thinned across the front and was susceptible to Allied counterattacks.

It has been argued that despite the territorial gains that the Germans were left in far weaker positions after the Spring Offensive than before the attacks. The Germans lost many men during the battles in the Spring of 1918. It has been estimated that the strength of the German army had fallen from just over five million in March 1918 to just over four million by the Autumn of 1918. The allies had also suffered many losses, but these were made alleviated by reinforcements from the United States. By Autumn, the German army had all but collapsed, leading to the Armistice of 1918 and the defeat of the German Empire. [15]

Reasons for the Failure of the German Offensive

The Germans failed for a variety of reasons. First, Ludendorff failed to set out clear objectives. He constantly changed his mind and deviated from his original plans and goals. This caused some confusion in the German chain of command. Then there was the over-reliance on the Stormtroopers, they were among the finest soldiers of the First World War, but after the first assaults they suffered heavy casualties and the Germans could not effectively replace them with the same quality of troops. [16] This meant that the Stormtroopers quickly lost their effectiveness due to the high casualty rate. This reality was demonstrated at the Second Battle of the Marne, when they failed to achieve any sort of breakthrough. Ludendorff also failed to support the Stormtroopers when they did advance. The German army lacked mobile units, such as cavalry made to reinforce the newly captured territories. [17] This made the Stormtroopers very vulnerable to any counterattacks during the offensive. Furthermore, after the first battles the allies reinforced their defensive positions and this made any German breakthrough even harder to achieve.

The German military during the offensive faced a critical shortage of supplies. The German economy was on the verge of collapse, and it could barely feed its people. This was perhaps the main reason why the German Offensive in Spring 1918 ultimately failed. The German army was often hungry, and its advances were often slowed as hungry troops pillaged captured allied supply depots. There was also a critical shortage of fuel for tanks and the German planes. This allowed the allies to retain air superiority during the offensives. Then as the German-made rapid advances, their supply lines were unable to keep pace, and this results in shortages of everything that slowed the advance. On several occasions, the Germans simply stopped their progress, not because of ally’s resistance but because they had run out of supplies. [18]


The great German Spring Offensive was a failure. It failed to inflict a decisive defeat on the allies and force them to negotiate a peace settlement. The Germans offensive was well planned but its goals had been poorly defined and they often changed. The German army by 1918 was poorly supplied and this greatly constrained its ability to fight and to press home its early gains in the Spring of 1918. The offensive was a partial success in terms of territorial gain, but it proved very costly. The allies had been badly hit but they had not been broken. At no time did the French or the British consider negotiating with Berlin, partly because they knew that the Americans would soon flood the western front with men and material. The German army after the demands and losses of the offensive was very weak and when the allies launched a massive Autumn offensive they simply collapsed and this led to the end of the war and an allied victory.

The former Prussian royal family’s effort to recover riches lost after the Second World War hinges on one question: did their ancestors’ support help Hitler and the Nazis take power?

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On 29 August 2020, German demonstrators protesting against Covid restrictions tried to storm the Reichstag building in Berlin. Unlike their counterparts in Washington, DC on 6 January, they did not succeed there were far fewer protesters, and there was no head of state to goad them. It was startling to see some of the Berlin mob waving flags and banners in the colours of pre-1918 imperial Germany – black, white and red – in the same way that the Washington crowd waved flags of the Confederacy.

These are also the colours Hitler used when he designed the Nazi Party’s flag. They stand for a distinctively authoritarian concept of Germany, in contrast to the black, red and gold of the 1848 Revolution, the Weimar Republic from 1918 to 1933, and today’s national flag.

There is no chance of a monarchical restoration in Germany. The far-right Reichsbürger (Reich Citizens) movement, founded in 1985 by a former railway traffic superintendent, has fewer than 20,000 adherents, including those who were brandishing the imperial German flags in front of the Reichstag. The refusal of the Reichsbürger to recognise the legitimacy of the modern German state has led to sporadic acts of violence, including the fatal shooting of a policeman in 2016. But when they are not engaged in activities such as issuing their own “Reich” currency and postage stamps, the members spend their time quarrelling with each other and are not taken seriously even by other parts of the German far right.

The idea of restoring the German Reich has only a limited appeal in Germany. The Hohenzollerns, the royal family of Prussia and then, following the unification of Germany in 1871, the German Reich, are not going to make a comeback, nor, surely, would they ever want to. But they have recently emerged from decades of obscurity to make headlines again.

This time it’s not so much about politics as about property. The Hohenzollern family is headed by Georg Friedrich, “Prince of Prussia”, the great-great-grandson of Wilhelm II, the last Kaiser, who reigned between 1888 and 1918. Georg Friedrich is a businessman who, among other things, has launched a variety of beer called Prussia’s Pils (drinking it, the advertising copy claims, is a “majestic pleasure”). It seemed an obvious business move to try to recover, or obtain compensation for, some of the family’s former property lost during Germany’s turbulent 20th century.

In 1918, a socialist revolution forced the Kaiser off the throne following Germany’s defeat in the First World War. Wilhelm II went into exile, taking with him 59 railway wagons laden with his possessions, including furniture and works of art, which he used to furnish a manor house in the Netherlands, where he spent the rest of his life.

After the Second World War, all this was confiscated by the Dutch state on the grounds that the ex-Kaiser and his sons had supported the Nazis, and in 1953 it transferred the house and its contents to a specially created foundation, which has kept it as a museum. In 2014 the Hohenzollern family began proceedings through the international law firm Eversheds to have it returned to their possession. But in May 2015, the Dutch government rejected the claim, and there the matter has rested.

Far more extensive, however, were the family’s properties in Germany itself, confiscated in the 1918 Revolution. In 1926 the Hohenzollerns managed to reclaim a sizeable portion of their property through an agreement signed with the government. Post-1945, their possessions and estates were mostly located to the east of the Iron Curtain, where they were confiscated again, this time by the Soviet Union. After its creation in 1949, the German Democratic Republic, a Soviet puppet state, nationalised the possessions along with most other private property. So when the Berlin Wall fell, they were appropriated by the reunited German state. Faced with millions of claims from individuals, families and businesses, the German parliament allowed the return of property confiscated by the East German state and then, in 1994, it passed a measure permitting compensation for the loss of property confiscated by the Allies between 1945 and 1949.

But there was a catch. The 1994 law acknowledged the validity of compensation claims only if the previous owners had not “significantly promoted the National Socialist or the Communist System”. So in 2011, Prince Georg Heinrich commissioned the Cambridge historian Christopher Clark to produce a confidential report on the question of whether or not his ancestors had lent significant support to the Nazis.

Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, Clark is a household name in Germany. The German edition of his history of Prussia, Iron Kingdom (2006), was a bestseller and brought him into contact with Prince Georg Heinrich, whose lavish wedding celebrations he is rumoured to have attended in 2011. A year later he published The Sleepwalkers, a gripping narrative of the outbreak of the First World War, which appeared in German in time for the centenary commemorations and topped the bestseller lists for weeks. It earned him national fame, media appearances, interviews with politicians, and invitations on to chat shows, where he would gladly sing revolutionary songs from the year 1848 in an agreeable light tenor and in perfect German. Since then he has fronted four popular history series on German TV, the most recent involving visits to Unesco World Heritage Sites.

Clark owes his popularity in Germany not just to his compulsively readable histories, or his impressive articulacy and charm. It is also because his books are widely understood to lift the guilt many felt about the history of Prussia, abolished in 1947 as the cradle of militarism, and the outbreak of the First World War, which the 1919 Treaty of Versailles blamed on Germany.

It is not that Clark’s books are biased. As he rightly says, it’s time to move on from finger-pointing and treat these as historical topics like any other. Prussia stood for more than simply militarism, particularly during the Enlightenment, and all the countries involved in the catastrophe of 1914 had territorial ambitions, not just Germany. That Clark is Australian-born and teaches at Cambridge was taken in Germany as a sign of his lack of parti pris. When he was knighted in 2015, it was for services to Anglo-German relations, and on the recommendation of the then foreign secretary Philip Hammond, who had heard good things about him from his German counterparts.

It is a curious fact that if you say Germany was not exclusively or even primarily responsible for the outbreak of war in 1914, you are regarded as left wing in Britain and right wing in Germany. When I dared to suggest in 2014 that the war was not about the British defending democracy against the Kaiser’s attempt to crush it in Europe, Michael Gove denounced me as someone peddling “left-wing versions of the past”. In Germany, Clark has been equally misunderstood as advocating a right-wing version of history biased in favour of the Hohenzollerns. But anyone expecting him to say nice things about them in his report on their relationship with the Nazis must have been disappointed.

Clark made it clear that, after his abdication in 1918, the ex-Kaiser wanted his throne back. When the National Socialists started to win electoral support from the end of the 1920s, Wilhelm put his faith in Hitler as a means of bringing about a Hohenzollern restoration. The ex-Kaiser approved both of the decision of his fourth son August Wilhelm to become a Nazi stormtrooper in 1930, and his wife’s attendance at the Nuremberg Nazi Party Rally. Deeply anti-Semitic, Wilhelm blamed his overthrow in 1918 on a Jewish conspiracy and declared Jews, “a poisonous fungus on the German oak tree”. He declared they should be exterminated. “I believe,” he said privately, “gas would be best.”

Eager for support from monarchists, the Nazis reciprocated. Leading Nazi Hermann Göring travelled to the Netherlands for a meeting with Wilhelm in January 1931, and again in the summer of 1932. But the law did not permit the ex-Kaiser to return to Germany, whereas his son, “Crown Prince” Wilhelm could come and go as he pleased. In the second round of the presidential election in April 1932, the Crown Prince publicly declared he would vote for Hitler against the sitting president, Paul von Hindenburg. After the election, which Hitler lost, the Crown Prince boasted that his support had nevertheless won Hitler two million extra votes. He also wrote to Hitler in September 1932 expressing his hope that the Nazi leader would come to power in a coalition cabinet with conservatives (which he did in January 1933). In meetings with the Crown Prince in 1926 and 1932, Hitler encouraged him to think that if he came to power, the Hohenzollerns could be restored after the death of the aged Hindenburg.

However, when Hindenburg died in 1934, Hitler declared himself head of state, and both the Crown Prince and his father realised that the Nazi leader had no intention of facilitating a Hohenzollern restoration. Dim-witted and unpopular, the Crown Prince, Clark concluded in his report, was a playboy, fond of fast women and fast cars, and famous for the affairs and flirtations which the writer Lion Feuchtwanger pilloried to comic effect in his novel The Oppermanns (1933). He was, Clark wrote, “a twit”, and while he was undeniably pro-Nazi, the help he gave the Nazis was not “substantial”.

Armed with Clark’s report, Prince Georg and his lawyers launched their restitution and compensation claim in 2014. Their demands were reported to include the permanent right of rent-free residence for the family in the 176-room Cecilienhof, and involve some 15,000 items of property. Prince Georg withdrew his claim to reside at the Cecilienhof but the rest remained. They also requested “institutionalised participation” in state-owned “public institutions” (museums, castles and the like) to which they had made permanent loans of items.

Initially, a local authority in the state of Brandenburg, where most of the property was located, granted the Hohenzollerns compensation of €1.2m, but this was overruled by the state government’s finance ministry, which commissioned two further historians to provide reports.

The first of these was Peter Brandt – son of the Social Democratic chancellor the late Willy Brandt – who is best known for his 1981 book on the social history of old Prussia the second, Stephan Malinowski, is an expert on the history of the German aristocracy who teaches at the University of Edinburgh. Both provided evidence to show that the Crown Prince was an admirer of Benito Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship in Italy, where King Victor Emmanuel III remained on the throne as formal head of state. The Crown Prince thought this provided a model for a future dictatorship in Germany. His public backing for the Nazis in 1932 and 1933 was, Brandt and Malinowski concluded, a significant influence in persuading large numbers of monarchist Germans to vote for Hitler and support the Third Reich thereafter.

Further important evidence was supplied after the last, semi-free elections of the Weimar Republic, on the Day of Potsdam on 21 March 1933. Here, Hitler staged a reconciliation with the old order at the opening of the newly elected parliament. At this point, the Nazi leader had not yet established a full dictatorship. He needed conservative support for a majority in the Reichstag. But many German conservatives, from the old elites, the business world, the armed forces, landed society, and the churches, worried about the violence of Nazi stormtroopers and the “socialist” rhetoric of the party’s propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels.

The Hohenzollerns turned up to the Day of Potsdam in force. Broadcast on national radio, celebrated in the middle-class nationalist press, and reported abroad, the ceremony marked the symbiosis of nationalist traditionalism and National Socialist radicalism. As the historian Karl Dietrich Bracher noted in his classic 1960 account of the Nazi seizure of power, the ceremony was important for “the number of those who used it to justify their fellow-travelling with the new order the phenomenon of the “March violets” [the middle-class Germans who joined the Nazi Party in 1933] is also as closely connected with it as possible”.

As Ulrich Herbert, a leading German historian of Nazism, concluded, it was difficult to sustain the argument that the Crown Prince was a marginal figure after Malin- owski and Brandt had presented their evidence. For Heinrich August Winkler, doyen of historians of the Weimar Republic, there was no doubt that: “Merely by calling on people to vote for Hitler in the second round of the Reich presidential elections in April 1932, the Crown Prince had performed an important contribution to making Hitler acceptable to conservative Germans loyal to the Kaiser.” Winkler showed that two million more people voted for Hitler in the second round compared to the first, and the overwhelming majority of these were conservative, middle-class electors who treasured the memory of the Bismarckian Reich.

In the light of these new findings, Clark changed his mind, conceding that “the Crown Prince had energetically worked to overcome the reservations of conservatives about dealing with the Nazis, also after the seizure of power”. He had supported the Hohenzollerns’ claims in his report, he said, because he thought they only involved “a few landscape paintings and family heirlooms”. Had he known how extensive their restitution efforts were, he said, he would never have “placed my pen at their disposal”. Queried on his change of position, he pointed out quite correctly, “That’s what happens in history: we find out new stuff, we change our mind.”

In the meantime, in 2015, Prince Georg and his lawyers had commissioned a fourth confidential report, this time from Wolfram Pyta, a history professor in Stuttgart, and author of a major biography of Hindenburg. It went much further than Clark, portraying the family as actively anti-Nazi, scheming with General Kurt von Schleicher, Hitler’s predecessor as Reich chancellor, and with leading Nazi Gregor Strasser, to try to stop Hitler by forming a coalition of Nazis and conservatives. But Pyta was unable to disprove the conclusions to which the Crown Prince’s public backing for Hitler inevitably led. Pyta’s arguments were dismissed by leading specialists as “bizarre”.

By this point, the case had gone to trial before an administrative court in Potsdam but the federal government in Berlin now paused the trial in order to attempt an out-of-court settlement. In July 2019, details of the behind-the-scenes negotiations between the Hohenzollerns and the federal government were leaked to the German news magazine Der Spiegel.

Then, in November 2019, a well-known German comedian, Jan Böhmermann, devoted a whole issue of his regular TV show to the Hohenzollerns’ claim. The programme’s title was “Balls of Steel” – the equipment Böhmermann considered necessary for the prince to have brought the claims. A large part of his polemic consisted of contrasting the wealthy Hohenzollern clan with the persecuted victims of German colonialism in Namibia before the First World War: powerful stuff, but in the end, irrelevant to the issues at stake. Of more direct importance was Böhmermann also getting hold of the four expert reports and posting them online for all to read.

As a result, the federal government sanctioned the renewal of the Potsdam trial, though the case has been postponed to autumn 2021 to give the parties more time to prepare their cases.

Prince Georg’s lawyers are reported to have filed more than 120 writs against journalists and historians, bloggers, broadcasters, politicians, lawyers and others, threatening them with fines or up to six months in prison if they persist in making what the family regard as false claims about its ancestors’ sympathy for the Nazis in the 1920s and 1930s. The recipients include Malinowski, as well as the chair of the German Historians’ Association Eva Schlotheuber, and the Marburg professor Eckart Conze, who was served with a writ because he had complained that the Hohenzollerns were issuing too many writs.

The Hohenzollerns have not been without their defenders, notably Benjamin Hasselhorn, author of a 2018 study of Wilhelm II arguing that if the Kaiser had died a hero’s death at the end of the First World War, he could have rescued the German monarchy. Quoting Winston Churchill, Hasselhorn has presented constitutional monarchy as the best system of government. But there was no way that the Kaiser was ever going to put himself in the way of physical harm and the possibility of his family, given their antidemocratic views at the time, accepting a constitutional monarchy after 1918 was remote. Hasselhorn’s defence of the Hohenzollerns before parliamentary hearings has not been endorsed by many historians, but it has convinced some politicians at least that historical opinion is too divided to allow a decisive verdict to be reached.

Another defender of the Hohenzollerns, Frank-Lothar Kroll, a specialist in the history of Prussia, has condemned Conze and Schlotheuber for what he sees as their bias and their inclination towards “political correctness”. Kroll pointed out that the Prussian monarchs had believed it was the duty of the authorities to care for the welfare of the poor. It was wrong, he said, to equate the Hohenzollerns with “Prussianism” and Nazism. They had a good side as well.

His intervention highlighted some of the wider issues in the controversy, sparked by the coincidence of 18 January 2021 being the 150th anniversary of the proclamation of the German empire, following Bismarck’s triumph in the Franco-Prussian War. While some liberal historians, notably Conze, have portrayed the empire of 1871-1918 as a kind of antechamber to the Third Reich – authoritarian, militaristic, racist, even genocidal with respect to its colony in Namibia – others, such as Hedwig Richter, author of a recent history of democracy in Germany, have seen it as an example of modernity – technologically advanced, and home to radical social movements such as feminism and socialism.

The truth is that it was both. While there was an active political and electoral culture, the government was authoritarian, appointed by the Kaiser and not responsible to the legislature. The military had enormous influence, and although there was a large feminist movement it moved decisively in a conservative-nationalist direction even before 1914. As such, the debate resembles the present “culture wars” over the British empire, and is about as useful to genuine historical understanding.

The Hohenzollern case has also become politicised. The Green Party – a significant political force in Germany – and the post-communist Left Party are leading the enquiries and hearings being held before committees in the federal parliament. Angela Merkel’s party, the Christian Democrats, are inclined to be more understanding of the Hohenzollerns’ claim, along with the small, business-friendly Free Democratic Party, which sees the issues at stake largely in terms of property rights. Merkel’s main coalition partners, the centre-left Social Democrats, have failed to take a clear stance, reflecting their general political helplessness and disorientation over the past few years. The strongest supporters of the Hohenzollerns are the Alternative for Germany, the far-right party that has strong backing in the former East and has been arguing that Germany should no longer apologise for its past. It’s an endorsement the Hohenzollerns could really do without.

Der Spiegel reported that at the end of January 2021, the family’s representatives threatened to withdraw the thousands of items placed on permanent loan to museums, galleries and buildings in Brandenburg unless negotiations, which have been suspended for a while, are reopened. There are, they say, plenty of institutions in other parts of Germany that would be happy to display them.

However, the state governments of Berlin and Brandenburg are not inclined, as Berlin’s senator for culture Klaus Lederer, a member of the Left Party, has said, to give in to this kind of ultimatum. The consensus view of historians, he continued, was that the Hohenzollerns had substantially aided the Nazis. The Hohenzollerns continue to dispute this. A number of well-known conservative German historians have signed a letter in support of their claim, and the Aberdeen-based historian Thomas Weber, an acknowledged expert on the rise of Hitler, has also lent his support. The federal government has ruled that until the governments of Berlin and Brandenburg can agree that the case can be taken forward, it is not minded to reopen negotiations on a settlement out of court. These two state governments have also declared they are not inclined to settle out of court.

Prince Georg now regrets having (briefly) demanded the right to live in the Cecilienhof. He has said he is reflecting in a self-critical way whether he should have filed the writs, given the public criticism this has aroused. Meanwhile, the Superior Court in Hamburg has dismissed an appeal against a lower court rejecting the Hohenzollerns’ case against Malinowski. The ruling, from which there is no further appeal, stops the family and their representatives from accusing Malinowski of making up the evidence he has presented. It has been greeted by the press as a significant clue to the fate of the lawsuits still in progress. There are in any case only two of these, and no new writs have been issued for several months.

The wider implications of the affair are more troubling. The Hohenzollerns are not just any family. They come with a heavy historical baggage. A decision in their favour would mean in effect ignoring their ancestors’ collaboration with the Nazis, even if such help was not substantial enough to bar restitution of some of their former property. It would undermine the Federal Republic’s continuing and, so far, largely successful effort to come to terms with the Nazi past. There were important continuities between the German empire and the Third Reich – militarism, authoritarianism, nationalism, anti-Semitism – as well as differences. It was not by accident that Hitler designed the Nazi flag in the imperial colours.

Richard J Evans is regius professor emeritus of history at Cambridge University, and the author of The Third Reich in History and Memory (Abacus)

Inside the Drug Use That Fueled Nazi Germany

In his bestselling book, �r Totale Rausch” (The Total Rush)—recently published in English as 𠇋litzed”—Ohler found that many in the Nazi regime used drugs regularly, from the soldiers of the Wehrmacht (German armed forces) all the way up to Hitler himself. The use of methamphetamine, better known as crystal meth, was particularly prevalent: A pill form of the drug, Pervitin, was distributed by the millions to Wehrmacht troops before the successful invasion of France in 1940.

Developed by the Temmler pharmaceutical company, based in Berlin, Pervitin was introduced in 1938 and marketed as a magic pill for alertness and an anti-depressive, among other uses. It was briefly even available over the counter. A military doctor, Otto Ranke, experimented with Pervitin on 90 college students and decided, based on his results, that the drug would help Germany win the war. Using Pervitin, the soldiers of the Wehrmacht could stay awake for days at a time and march many more miles without resting.

Nazi leadership, c. 1940. Theodore Morell is fourth from right. (Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R99057 / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

A so-called “stimulant decree” issued in April 1940 sent more than 35 million tablets of Pervitin and Isophan (a slightly modified version produced by the Knoll pharmaceutical company) of the pills to the front lines, where they fueled the Nazis’ 𠇋litzkrieg” invasion of France through the Ardennes mountains. It should be noted that Germans were not alone in their use of performance-enhancing drugs during World War II. Allied soldiers were known to use amphetamines (speed) in the form of Benzedrine in order to battle combat fatigue.

When it came to Nazi leaders, Ohler’s research suggested, they all favored their own particular drugs of choice. In an interview with VICE when his book was first published in Germany, Ohler clarified: “Not all of them took every drug. Some more, some less. Some of them were on methamphetamine𠅏or example, Ernst Udet, the Chief of Aircraft Procurement and Supply. Others were on strong anesthetics, like Göring, whose nickname was actually ‘Möring,’ from morphine.”

Ohler, an award-winning novelist and screenwriter, had initially planned to write a novel about the Nazis’ long-rumored drug use. But his plans changed when he found the detailed records left by Dr. Theodor Morell, Hitler’s personal physician. He ended up spending years studying Morell’s records in the Federal Archive in Koblenz, the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich and the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and deciding to focus on fact instead of fiction.

Hitler presents Morell the Knight’s Cross, c. 1944. (Credit: Heinrich Hoffmann/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Morell, a shady minor figure in previous biographies and histories of Hitler’s regime, reportedly met the Führer after treating Heinrich Hoffmann, the official Reich photographer. After Morell prescribed a bacteria-based medication that helped Hitler’s intestinal troubles, they began a devoted, mutually dependent relationship that would last for more than nine years. During this time, Morell’s notes show, the doctor injected Hitler almost daily with various drugs, including amphetamines, barbiturates and opiates.

Thanks to his association with Hitler, Morell was able to amass a roster of high-status clients in Nazi Germany his letterhead proclaimed him as the 𠇏ührer’s Personal Physician.” He even acquired a large Czech company (previously Jewish-owned) in order to mass-produce vitamin and hormone remedies using various unsavory animal parts, including bulls’ testicles.

Hitler and Eva Braun, c. 1940. Thedor Morell is far right. (Credit: Keystone-FranceGamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Though Hitler may not have used Pervitin, it would have been one of very few substances he didn’t try. According to Ohler, Morell’s personal notes suggest he gave Hitler some 800 injections over the years, notably including frequent doses of Eukodal, the German brand name for the synthetic opiate oxycodone. Later in the war, when things started to go badly for the Axis, Morell reportedly gave Hitler his first dose of Eukodal before an important meeting with the Italian leader Benito Mussolini, among others, in July 1943. By the spring of 1945, shortly before Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker along with his new wife, Eva Braun (also a patient of Morell’s), Ohler concluded the Führer was likely suffering from withdrawal due to Morell’s inability to find drugs in the devastated city.

Ohler has stressed that his book doesn’t seek to blame the Nazis’ war crimes on their use of drugs. Though his research suggests some of Hitler’s during the war could have related to the drugs he was taking, he points out that the foundations for the horrific Final Solution, for example, were laid out in Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” and the implementation of related policies began in the 1930s, before the heavy drug use began.

Watch a preview of Nazis on Drugs: Hitler and the Blitzkrieg. Premieres Sunday, July 21 at 9/8c.

How Germany's World War I Stormtroopers Became Human Tanks

The word "stormtrooper" has a funny reputation. It conjures memories of brownshirted Nazi thugs terrorizing Jews, or images of Darth Vader's white-armored henchmen in Star Wars.

But in 1918, stormtroopers were Germany's human equivalent of the tank. A two-legged weapon that almost brought victory to Germany in World War I.

The origins of the stormtroopers, or stosstruppen (assault troops), began in the trench warfare of World War I. Within months after the war began in August 1914, the Western Front had fossilized into 450 miles of trenches stretching from the Belgian coast to the Swiss border.

No matter, said the generals. Our glorious infantry will smash through them with a bayonet charge. But the PBI (Poor Bloody Infantry) soon realized they were mere sheep for the slaughter against machine guns and barbed wire.

No matter, said the generals. We shall simply annihilate the enemy with a massive artillery barrage -- as in the 1.5 million shells that preceded the British 1916 Somme offensive -- and then the infantry shall merely have to stroll forward to occupy the ground. Instead, the enemy waited in their underground dugouts until the barrage lifted before emerging to mow down the attacking infantry.

After a while, the Western Front had degenerated into a mere struggle for attrition, the most futile form of warfare. Strategy at bloodbaths like Verdun consisted of flinging enough firepower to kill more of the enemy than they killed of you. Mahatma Gandhi may have been a pacifist, but he understood the problem better than the military professionals when he said "an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind."

By 1917, with both sides running low on manpower and in national willingness to sacrifice their men, a better way was needed. Some method that would break the deadlock before the combatants attrited each other into national extinction.

Fortunately, while war is horrible, it is also dynamic. Stalemates are eventually broken, either because one side gives up, both sides make peace, or a military solution is found. In 1917-18, both the Allies and Germans found a way to break out of the stranglehold of trench warfare.

For the Allies, the solution was technological. The tank was invented as a trench-buster, a mechanical fortress that could survive passage across No Man's Land between the opposing lines. Its armor allowed it to shrug off bullets and shrapnel, its weapons could knock out German machine gun nests before the machine guns knocked off the Allied infantry, while its internal combustion engine carried that firepower and armor to the enemy's door. Given Allied superiority in natural resources and industry, it was a logical solution.

Imperial Germany had no such luxury. Outnumbered in manpower and industrial potential, worn down by years of war against a numerically superior opponent, the Kaiser's army couldn't hope to beat the Allies in what the Germans dreaded as a materialschlacht (a war of material).

The solution was the stormtrooper.

Instead of brute force or technology, German storm tactics relied on brainpower. Rather than hitting the enemy trenches head-on as in previous First World War battles, the idea was to find weak points in his line and penetrate those soft spots. Don't expend blood and time assaulting enemy strong points, said German doctrine. Bypass them and cut them off from their headquarters and supply depots. Seep into the enemy's rear and overrun his artillery batteries and command posts. By the time the defender realizes what is happening on, his front-line troops will be surrounded and isolated, to be mopped up later by follow-up waves of regular German troops.

If this sounds familiar, it's because this is exactly how blitzkrieg operated in World War II. Rommel, Patton and Zhukov would have understood the German approach very well.

Storm tactics were championed by General Oskar von Hutier, an army commander battling Tsarist Russia on the Eastern Front. Hutier envisioned an offensive beginning with an artillery barrage intensive enough to paralyze the defenders, but short enough to avoid giving them too much warning to bring up reserves. The barrage would comprise poison gas as well as high-explosive shells to stun the enemy as well as force them to don cumbersome gas masks.

Advancing behind a creeping artillery barrage that would keep landing just ahead of the German troops, the stosstruppen would cross No Man's Land in dispersed small units rather than massed targets. Heavily armed with light machine guns, mortars and the newly invented flamethrower, they would penetrate between strong points and continue into the rear areas.

A trial run came in October 1917 on the Italian front, where Austria-Hungary and Italy were mired in a bloody campaign of mountain warfare in the Alps. But at the Battle of Caparetto, German stormtroopers and infiltration tactics enabled a German-Austrian offensive to capture 265,000 Italians and nearly knock Italy out of the war.

More was to come. Since the beginning of the war, Germany had been forced to split its forces between East and West. But the fall of the Tsar, which led to the Bolsheviks pulling Russia out of the war, enabled Germany to transfer nearly 50 divisions from the East to the West in 1918. For the first time in a while, the Germans outnumbered the Anglo-French armies, but not for long: America had entered the war, and soon 2 million fresh, healthy men would arrive in France.

But even with numerical superiority, what could Germany do? Another "big push," with infantry and artillery, would only gain a couple of miles of territory at a ferocious price. But the stosstruppen offered a chance for that rarest of World War I outcomes: a breakthrough.

Fortunately for the Germans, the Allies made their task easier. The way to defend against infiltration, as against blitzkrieg mechanized offensives in the next war, was defense in depth. Multiple defensive lines could wear down and blunt an enemy attack. The way to survive massive bombardment, as Hitler's troops learned at the hands of Soviet artillery, was to leave just a few troops in the front lines and keep the bulk further to the rear to escape the barrage and then counterattack.

But unaware -- or disregarding warning of -- German infiltration tactics, the British Fifth Army packed its forward trenches with troops while their strong points were placed so far apart that they couldn't cover the gaps in between.

Sure enough, the Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser's battle), Germany's spring 1918 offensive, began with a hurricane barrage of high-explosive and gas shells that devastated the crowded British forward trenches. Cloaked by smoke, gas and fog, Stosstruppen infiltrated between the British strong points and cut off the dazed defenders.

The Kaiserschlacht began with Operation Michael on March 21, 1918. Whereas the British and French had spent hundreds of thousands of men and several months to advance a mile or two, the Germans penetrated 40 miles in two weeks. The Allies, long accustomed to static combat, now found themselves in mobile warfare for the first time since the opening battles of 1914.

Between March and June 1918, Germany launched four offensives. At first they succeeded so well that the British commander, Field Marshal Douglas Haig, warned his troops that their "backs are to the wall." Yet by the end, it was the Germans who had lost.

One reason was poor German strategy instead of aiming for key British supply ports on the coast, it attacked further inland. Worse yet, the Germans discovered that no matter how deeply they punched through Allied defenses, supplies and reinforcements trudging through a moonscape of shell craters could never keep up with the assault spearheads.

But most of all, after four years of attrition, Germany only had a limited supply of fit young men with the stamina and energy for infiltration tactics. Once that supply of energetic manpower was consumed, the tired, older men who made up the regular German army were no substitute. The Allies, on the other hand, had thousands of tanks. By November 1918, the German army could not resist Allied combined arms offensives of tanks, infantry and artillery.

Do the stosstruppen offer lessons for today? The most obvious is one that has eluded the U.S. military since the Civil War: clever tactics are a match for superior weapons and technology. It's a lesson that the Viet Cong and the Taliban have taken to heart, and one that the Chinese and Russians will utilize as well.

Yet before we toast the triumph of the human spirit, let us remember that stormtroopers didn't save Imperial Germany. The Allies could always build more tanks. The Germans, despite later Nazi visions of Aryan stud farms, couldn't suddenly hatch more 18-year-old stormtroopers like so many eggs. Perhaps there is something distasteful and unheroic about waging war through drones. But most soldiers standing in a muddy trench in 1918 would have been more than happy to let a machine do the dangerous work.

Technology alone doesn't win wars. But it's better to shed machines than blood.

German Assault Troops of the First World War: Stosstrupptaktik - The First Stormtroopers Paperback – 1 September 2014

Stephen Bull's "German Assault Troops of the First World War: Stosstrupptaktik - The First Stormtroopers" is by far one of the better books on this subject. The First World War is generally characterized as a war of attrition with static defenses of trench warfare and very draconian. However this war led to the development and implementation of the Stormtroopers and their tactics, which is considered today as major development in the history infantry warfare. The Stormtroopers were specialist soldiers of the German Army in the First World War. In the last years of the war, Stormtroopers were trained to fight with infiltration tactics, part of the Germans' new method of attack on enemy trenches during the stalemate tactics of trench warfare. Men trained in these methods were known in Germany as Sturmmann (literally "storm man" but usually translated as "stormtrooper"), formed into companies of Sturmtruppen ("assault troops", more often and less exactly "storm troops"). The infiltration tactics of the stormtroopers are still in use today, in one form or another. This book looks at the first part of the war, were the standard assault on a trench line consisted of a lengthy artillery barrage all along the line, with coordinated attacks to smash the enemy positions, followed by a rush forward of infantry in massed lines to overwhelm any remaining defenders. This process either failed, or at most gained only a short distance, while incurring enormous casualties and the armies settled into trench warfare. Instead of this standard assault, troops were trained to consider fire as a means to facilitate movement in progress. Movement would be a call for fire. Shock troop tactics (Stosstrupptaktik) advocated using combined arms in the attack, particularly light machine guns, grenades, flame-throwers and gas, with a decentralized fire control and tactical command system (known as Auftragstaktik in German) in close combat. Overall, this is must read for the military historian and infantrymen serving today.

1. The Problem of Attack
2. Confronting Stasis
3. Grenades, Flame and Gas: Tactics and Technology
4. Development of Defense
5. The Stormtroop Idea
6. Machine Gun Tactics
7. Close Combat and the Tank
8. 1918: Birth of a Legend
-Appendix I
-Appendix II

The Real History That Inspired “Star Wars”

When George Lucas developed the storyline for “Star Wars” and crafted his heroes and villains, he tapped into elements of theology, mysticism and mythology as well as his knowledge of classic films. And befitting a story set a “long time ago,” real-life history also played a central role in shaping the filmmaker’s space opera.

George Lucas attends the European Premiere of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” (Credit: Karwai Tang/WireImage)

“I love history, so while the psychological basis of ‘Star Wars’ is mythological, the political and social bases are historical,” Lucas told the Boston Globe in a 2005 interview. In fact, the filmmaker is such a history buff that he collaborated in the publication of the 2013 book “Star Wars and History,” which was edited by history professors Nancy R. Reagin and Janice Liedl. Written by a dozen leading historians and reviewed and confirmed by Lucas, “Star Wars and History” identifies the numerous real-life figures and events that inspired the science-fiction franchise, including the following:

Nazi Germany
There’s nothing subtle about this historical allusion in “Star Wars.” After all, the elite assault forces fanatically devoted to the Galactic Empire share a common name with the paramilitary fighters who defended the Nazi Party—stormtroopers. The Imperial officers’ uniforms and even Darth Vader’s helmet resemble those worn by German Army members in World War II, and the gradual rise of Palpatine from chancellor to emperor mirrored Adolf Hitler’s similar political ascent from chancellor to dictator. The Empire wasn’t the only side in “Star Wars” that cribbed Nazi imagery, however. The final scene of the original 1977 “Star Wars” in which Princess Leia awards medals to Rebel heroes Luke Skywalker and Han Solo while soldiers stood at attention echoed the massive Nazi rallies in Nuremberg captured in Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 propaganda film “Triumph of the Will.”

Poster for “Star Wars.” (Credit: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images)

Richard Nixon
Although there are parallels between Emperor Palpatine and dictators such as Hitler and Napoleon Bonaparte, the direct inspiration for the saga’s evil antagonist was actually an American president. According to J.W. Rinzler’s “The Making of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi,” when asked if Emperor Palpatine was a Jedi during a 1981 story conference, Lucas responded, “No, he was a politician. Richard M. Nixon was his name. He subverted the senate and finally took over and became an imperial guy and he was really evil. But he pretended to be a really nice guy.” In a 2005 interview published in the Chicago Tribune, Lucas said he originally conceived “Star Wars” as a reaction to Nixon’s presidency. “It was really about the Vietnam War, and that was the period where Nixon was trying to run for a [second] term, which got me to thinking historically about how do democracies get turned into dictatorships? Because the democracies aren’t overthrown they’re given away.”

Vietnam War
The guerilla war waged by the Rebel Alliance against the Galactic Empire mirrored the battle between an insurgent force and a global superpower that was playing out in Vietnam as Lucas wrote “Star Wars”. The filmmaker, who was originally set to direct to the Vietnam War film 𠇊pocalypse Now” in the early 1970s before moving on to “Star Wars,” said in an audio commentary on the 2004 re-release of “Return of the Jedi” that the Viet Cong served as his inspiration for the furry forest-dwelling Ewoks, who were able to defeat a vastly superior opponent in spite of their primitive weapons. As William J. Astore writes in “Star Wars and History,” both the Viet Cong and Ewoks were well-served by their “superior knowledge of the local terrain and an ability to blend into that terrain.”

Credit: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images

Ancient Rome
The political institutions of “Star Wars”—such as the Senate, Republic and Empire𠅊nd the pseudo-Latin names of characters such as chancellors Valorum and Palpatine echo those of ancient Rome. As Tony Keen notes in “Star Wars and History,” the architecture on the planet Naboo resembles that of imperial Rome, and the pod race in “The Phantom Menace” rivals that of the Roman chariot race seen on screen in �n-Hur.” The transition from the democratic Galactic Republic to the dictatorial Galactic Empire over the course of the franchise also mirrors that of ancient Rome. “It is plain that the basic structure of Lucas’s history derives from the fall of the Roman Republic and the subsequent establishment of a monarchy,” Keen writes.

Knights Templar
While the elite Jedi—who guard peace and justice in the Galactic Republic�r similarities to Japanese samurai and Shaolin monks, they also echo the medieval monastic military order of the Knights Templar. The Templars, writes Terrance MacMullan in “Star Wars and History,” “were esteemed above other knights for their austerity, devotion, and moral purity. Like the Jedi, they practiced individual poverty within a military-monastic order that commanded great material resources.” A 12-member council of elders headed by a grand master governed both the Jedi and the Templars, and Jedi clothing even resembled the hooded white robes worn by the Christian warrior-monks who took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Much like the Great Jedi Purge ordered by Chancellor Palpatine in “Revenge of the Sith,” France’s King Philip IV annihilated the Knights Templar after arresting hundreds of them on October 13, 1307, and subsequently torturing and executing them for heresy.

The first world war in German art: Otto Dix's first-hand visions of horror

In 1914 Otto Dix joined the German army as a fierce patriot two years later he was mowing down British soldiers at the Somme. Yet few artists did more to reveal the true horror of the first world war

A detail from Otto Dix's Stormtroops Advancing Under a Gas Attack, from his 1924 set of first world war drawings, Der Kreig. Photograph: British Museum/DACS

A detail from Otto Dix's Stormtroops Advancing Under a Gas Attack, from his 1924 set of first world war drawings, Der Kreig. Photograph: British Museum/DACS

In 1924 the German artist and war veteran Otto Dix looked back at the first world war on its 10th anniversary, just as we are doing on its 100th. What did he see? Today there is a fashion, in Britain, to celebrate the heroism of our grandfathers and their hard-won victory of 1914-1918. It's as if the clock is being turned back and the propaganda of the war believed all over again. Even the German war guilt clause written by the victors into the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 has been turned into "fact" – after all, who wants to trawl through the complex causes of this conflict and face the depressing truth that it ultimately happened because no one in July 1914 understood how destructive a modern industrial war could be?

We need to shake off the nostalgia of a centenary's forgetful pomp and look at the first world war through fresh eyes – German eyes. For no other artists saw this dreadful war as clearly as German artists did. While British war artists, for example, were portraying the generals, Germans saw the skull in no man's land.

Der Krieg, the series of prints Otto Dix published in 1924, and which is about to go on view at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea, is a startling vision of the apocalypse that really happened on Europe's soil 100 years ago.

A German soldier sits in a trench, resting against its muddy wall. He is smiling, but the grin is empty and hollow-eyed – for his face is a bare skull. He has been dead a while. No one bothered to bury him. His helmet is still on his skull, and his boots reveal a rotting ankle. In another print, a severed skull lies on the earth. Grass has grown on its crown. More grass resembles a moustache under its nose. Out of the eyes, vegetation bursts. Worms crawl sickeningly out of a gaping mouth.

Otto Dix's Skull, from his 1924 set of first world war drawings, Der Kreig Photograph: British Museum/DACS

Dix had seen these things as a frontline soldier. At the time, he later confessed, he did not think about them too much. It was after he went home that the nightmares started. In what might now be called post-traumatic stress, he kept seeing the horrors of the trenches. He was compelled to show them, with nothing held back.

The prints gathered in Der Krieg (The War) are just part of the hideous outpouring of images he unleashed. It was as if Dix needed to vomit his memories in order to purge himself of all that haunted him. He engraved these black-and-white vignettes just after painting The Trench, a horrific masterpiece that distilled the western front into one grisly carnival of death. The painting was hugely controversial, and in 1937 the Nazis included it in the notorious Degenerate Art exhibition that vilified modern German artists like Dix. The confiscated painting vanished during the second world war, perhaps burned in the bombing of Dresden.

Even with that loss, Dix's war art is a gut-wrenching act of witness. Yet he was not alone. He was part of a radical art movement that rejected the conflict and the European civilisation reponsible for it.

It was not at all obvious that a man such as Dix would create some of the defining pacifist images of the 20th century. In 1914 he was a fierce German patriot who joined up enthusiastically. He became a machine gunner and fought at the Battle of the Somme, efficiently mowing down British troops. He won the Iron Cross (second class) and began training to be a pilot. How did this courageous soldier turn into an anti-war artist?

To understand that, we need to comprehend that, during the first world war, a radical minority of Germans turned to artistic and political revolution, rather than nationalism. Like the British war poets, Germany's young artists came to hate the war, but unlike the poets, they organised to resist it.

Many simply could not take the front. Like Dix, the brilliant expressionist painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner joined up in 1914, but his mental health soon collapsed. In his 1915 painting Self-Portrait as a Soldier (currently in the National Portrait Gallery's exhibition The Great War in Portraits), he gives visual form to shell shock. The painter stands in uniform, his face yellow and eyes dazed, lurching like a sleepwalker, his right hand severed at the wrist.

'Giving visual form to shell shock' … Ludwig Kirchner's Self Portrait As Soldier (1915). Photograph: National Portrait Gallery

Kirchner had not really lost a hand. The bloody stump he waves is an image of artistic and sexual despair – war has unmanned him. Kirchner's pre-war paintings were sensual primeval nudes, but in his 1915 self-portrait he has turned helplessly from a naked model. It is not only a hand that has been amputated, but his very life force.

Like Dix and Kirchner, the poet Hugo Ball wanted to fight. He failed the medical three times. Visiting Belgium so he could at least see the front, he was so shocked that he turned against war, fled to Switzerland with his girlfriend, cabaret singer Emmy Hennings, and in 1916 founded the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. This was the birthplace of Dada, the most extreme art movement of the 20th century, which used nonsense, noise, cut-ups and chaos to repudiate war. "The beginning of Dada was really a reaction against mass murder in Europe," said Ball.

Dada was the counter-culture of the first world war, just as psychedelia was to be the counter-culture of Vietnam. At a time when supposedly rational decisions sent so many to their deaths – in 1916, the year Dada began, General Haig ordered an advance at the Somme that killed 19,000 British soldiers on a single day – Dada feigned madness. Its angriest practitioners were Germans.

Helmut Herzfeld wasn't so sure he wanted to be German, however. In 1916 he got so sick of the war's relentless propaganda that he changed his name to John Heartfield – a shockingly subversive adoption of the enemy's language. He got out of the army by pretending to be mad, and then, sent to work as a postman, threw away the mail to hinder Germany's war effort.

In 1919, at the First International Dada Art Fair in Berlin, Heartfield and another Dadaist, Rudolf Schlichter, hung a dummy of a German officer with a pig's face from the ceiling. It is impossible to think of Britain's generals being portrayed like this – but then Germany had lost, and Berlin was riven by revolution.

Dix also exhibited at the Dada fair. He got involved with this revolutionary movement after meeting its most charismatic exponent, George Grosz (much like Heartfield, he adopted the English "George" as a war protest). While Dix was at the front, Grosz was sending soldiers Dadaist "care packages" full of satirically useless stuff like neatly ironed white shirts.

George Grosz's Pillars of Society (1926) Photograph: Akg-Images/AKS0

At the 1919 fair Dix exhibited a painting of maimed war veterans begging on a Berlin pavement. The city was full of damaged men. In another of his Dada paintings, Card-Playing War Cripples, men breathe through tubes and use feet to hold cards – they are no longer men, they are collages.

For it took a new art to do justice to the Great War. So Dada invented photomontage, a shattered mirror of the violence done to bodies by war. At the Dada fair in Berlin this was made explicit when, over the broken bodies painted by Dix, a photomontage by Grosz of a man who seems horribly disfigured was inserted. This ruined face resembles photographs of the war's victims – until you realise the "Victim of Society" is nothing but an Arcimboldo head made of cut-out newspaper pictures.

German artists showed the war with utter clarity when others turned away. While the Dadaists were cutting up society, the war veteran Max Beckmann painted his grotesque vision of a world gone mad, Die Nacht (The Night). Yet their warnings went unheeded. In 1924 Dix's war engravings were shown in an anti-war exhibition. In less than a decade he would be living in internal exile, a banned "degenerate artist", while leaders with very different memories of the first world war laid the foundations of the second.

The truth survives. In his 1924 drawing How I Looked as a Soldier, Dix portrays himself holding his machine gun. He's unshaven under his helmet and his eyes are narrow slits. Dix the truth-teller looks back at Dix the killing machine.

Who's Who - Tsar Nicholas II

Tsar Nicholas II (1868-1918) - Russia's last emperor - was born on 18 May 1868 in Tsarskoe Selo.

Nicholas succeeded his father's throne, Alexander III, when the later died from liver disease on 20 October 1894. Nicholas was 26.

That same year Nicholas married Princess Alexandra of Hesse-Darmstadt, the grand-daughter of Queen Victoria. Alexandra was instrumental in convincing Nicholas to resist ever-growing calls for increased democracy within Russia. Alexandra was a firm believer in the autocratic principle. Nicholas required little persuasion: as a nationalist he decried those who favoured western style democracy.

Alexandra was unpopular with the Russian elite, more so as evidence emerged of her increasing influence over her husband. Her reliance upon Grigory Rasputin in determining Russian policy angered many, ultimately leading to Rasputin's assassination.

Defeat in the war with Japan of 1904-5 seriously damaged Russian prestige - and with it the esteem of the monarchy. Japan had launched a surprise attack on the Russian fleet based at Port Arthur throughout the war the Russian navy was found wanting, although the army fared better in repulsing Japanese troops in Manchuria.

At the same time as Russia faced war with Japan, there was increasing industrial unrest at home. Workers who faced long hours and poor conditions increasingly formed protests.

In 1904 110,000 workers in St Petersburg striked for four days in protest at the declining value of wages in real terms. Georgi Gapon, of the Assembly of Russian Workers, appealed to Nicholas for help in reducing working hours and improving pay and conditions. A consequent march on the Winter Palace was greeted by armed Cossacks: over 100 protestors were killed and many more wounded.

'Bloody Sunday', as it became known, sparked the 1905 Revolution, whereby strikes spread around the country and mutiny throughout the army and navy. Leon Trotsky founded the St Petersburg Soviet in October, with 50 more being established over the next month in the rest of the country.

In response to such wide-scale protest, and under the advice of close advisers, the Tsar published the 'October Manifesto', which granted freedom of conscience, speech, meeting and association, and the end of imprisonment without trial. In addition, no new law would become effective without the approval of the Duma, a consultative body.

The October Manifesto did not satisfy Trotsky (who with his supporters was subsequently arrested for his actions taken in protest) but did take the sting out of the crisis that had formed.

Although the Duma had been viewed as a toothless advisory body, at its first meeting in May 1906 it made demands for the release of political prisoners, for trade union rights and land reform. In rejecting these demands Nicholas promptly dissolved the Duma.

Later that year Nicholas replaced the moderate chief minister Sergi Witte with the more conservative Peter Stolypin. Stolypin attempted to balance the demands of both liberal and conservative factions in the country. He was ultimately unsuccessful: he was assassinated in 1911 by a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party at the Kiev Opera House.

With Germany's decision to enter into the Triple Alliance system with Austria-Hungary and Italy - whereby each of the three nations agreed to come to the other's aid in the event of attack by either France or Russia - Russia naturally saw Germany as its main potential enemy this despite Nicholas's position as the cousin of German Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Consequently Russia entered into an alliance with Britain and France, the 'Triple Entente'. When war was declared by Germany with France in August 1914, Russia came into the war on France's side.

Russian industrial unrest had continued into the first half of 1914. Up to half of the entire workforce are estimated to have striked that year. The war temporarily brought an effective end to industrial unrest however, although it later returned. The war also brought Nicholas political benefits the establishment united behind him in the conduct of the war.

Dissatisfied with the army's conduct of the war, Nicholas took personal command in September 1915. The Russian army were fighting on the Eastern Front and its ongoing lack of success was causing dissension at home. Unfortunately, now operating under Nicholas II's supreme command, its continued failure reflected directly upon the Tsar himself rather than the army command. Nicholas's popularity dwindled.

By late 1916 royalists within the Duma warned the Tsar that revolution was imminent even so, Nicholas refused to sanction further constitutional reform. During the so-called 'February Revolution' in 1917, which he misinterpreted as a minor uprising, his routine suppression orders to the Petrograd garrison sparked its mutiny on 10 March.

Nicholas II was persuaded to abdicate on 15 March 1917 under the recommendation of the Russian Army High Command. In search of exile elsewhere, Lloyd George offered a haven in Britain, only for the offer to be withdrawn under the direction of King George V, who did not wish to be associated with his autocratic cousin at this point: a controversial decision.

Moved to the Siberian city of Ekaterinburg by the Bolsheviks, Nicholas and his family were executed on the night of 16/17 July 1918.

Click here to view footage of the Tsar and Tsarina filmed prior to the outbreak of war in 1914 click here to view the Tsar's imperial declaration of war in St. Petersburg.

Kaiserschlacht, Spring 1918

Could the Germans have won the First World War in 1918? Almost certainly. A quarter of a century later, the tide of war would turn irretrievably against Hitler’s Third Reich in 1942/1943. The massive industrial power of the Soviet Union and the United States combined – still rising towards a wartime peak –guaranteed eventual defeat. The outcome was far more open in 1917/1918.

Allies drained

Militarily, the Western allies were weak, drained by largely fruitless offensives of their own and, in the case of France, by widespread mutinies. Fearful of another costly offensive like Passchendaele, the British Government had gone so far as to hold reinforcements at home rather than ship them to Field Marshal Haig in France. The result was that his British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was even weaker than it might have been.

Although the United States had joined the war on the side of the Entente in April, precious few formations had thus far arrived. Austria-Hungary, meanwhile, had put out tentative feelers for peace. Germany herself was struggling with the effects of naval blockade. Yet she had two important factors on her side.

One was transient: the question of numbers. The impending defeat of Russia would mean that Germany could shift troops west. This would give her an advantage until the Doughboys arrived. By the spring of 1918, she had reinforced the Western Front by nearly 50 divisions. With time running out, now was the moment to break the deadlock. The attempt to do that depended on Germany’s other trump card: a new tactical doctrine.

A new tactical doctrine

The Germans had developed a suite of new tactics that they hoped would give them the edge at the point of decision. The system had been trialled successfully at Riga in Russia, at Caporetto in Italy, and during the German counter-attack at Cambrai. Its key elements were speed, surprise, infiltration, and radically improved artillery barrages.

The notion of operational surprise was baked into all of Germany’s preparatory measures. So, for example, when attacking formations were concentrated, they would be held in rear areas for as long as possible and movement took place mostly at night.

Opening barrages were, by the standards of the day, brief – five hours on the morning of the first assault, as compared to Britain ‘s five-day barrage at the Somme.

Also crucial to Germany’s new approach were specialist ‘storm troops’, trained to advance rapidly and leave strongpoints for subsequent waves of infantry to deal with. As they did so, the newly developed ‘rolling barrage’ would keep just ahead of them. The troops were further accompanied by swarms of close-support aircraft in what would now be called an ‘air surge’.

Taken in the round, with sound generalship and in the context of Allied weakness, this was a potentially war-winning combination. Why, then, did it fail?

This is an extract from a 17-page special feature on Kaiserschlacht – otherwise known as the Ludendorff Offensive, spring 1918. Get the full story in issue 90 of Military History Monthly.

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