27 June 2019

The Military Society and the Concept of Continuous Education

When Gerhard von Scharnhorst arrived in Berlin in 1801, he had an ambitious reform agenda on his mind. He was appointed to helm the Military School for Young Infantry and Cavalry Officers in Berlin, better known as the Kriegsakademie. Scharnhorst’s aspirations went, however, much further.

Scharnhorst believed education had to become a life-long process of learning and exploring new ideas—the bedrock of military professionalism—and what he had in mind was no less than the transformation of military education. Beyond change in the classroom, the vehicle for this transformation was the Military Society (or Militärische Gesellschaft, in German). The club met once per week and quickly became the place to be for every ambitious officer. For the mere four years of its existence, the Military Society had a remarkable track record. According to Charles Edward White, almost sixty percent of the officers who were members became generals; seven rose to field marshals; and five of the eight Chiefs of Staff of the Prussian General Staff between 1813-1870 belonged to it.[1]

The text below continues the presentation on The Strategy Bridge of Scharnhorsst’s thinking through his previously untranslated writings. You can read the first two articles in this series: on experience and theory and on fortune and leadership in war. For the current text, in which he lays out an explanation for the ideas behind the Military Society, we also offer a short introduction.

Every Wednesday

In July 1801, after just a few months in Berlin, Scharnhorst met for dinner with six fellow officers and two civilian academics. The outcome was the creation of the Military Society, which officially began to meet in January of 1802. The honorary position of president went to the Lieutenant General Ernst Friedrich von Rüchel, a distinguished and well-known officer among the Prussian elite. This provided the Society with legitimacy and authority, while Scharnhorst retained executive control as the director.

Scharnhorst was teaching at the Kriegsakademie. The twenty young officers chosen to attend the advanced course there were bright and eager (Carl von Clausewitz belonged to the first class), but their number was limited, and their rank too junior to make a quick and significant change within the ranks. To reach more servicemembers, especially among the senior ranks, Scharnhorst needed another vehicle.

Ernst von Rüchel (Wikimedia)

The Military Society admitted Prussian officers and civilians working for the government or the army. Anyone desiring to become a member had to prepare an essay and send it anonymously to the organization. After reading aloud and debating the text, the other members had to decide whether to invite the author into the ranks of the Society. Only after a decision was made would the identity be revealed. By 1803, the Society had grown to 120 members, and when it was disbanded due to Prussia's mobilization for the upcoming fight against Napoleon in April 1805, it had admitted 187 members. Most of them visited the meetings regularly.[2] 

The membership, beside Scharnhorst’s students in the Kriegsakademie, came mostly from the senior ranks and members of the royal family. Baron vom Stein, for example, was a member of the Society and a minister in the cabinet whose energetic hand, after Prussia’s defeat in 1806, would lead the government to implement a series of groundbreaking social and political reforms.

The group met every Wednesday evening. After a social hour, at 6 pm they usually listened to a presentation prepared by one of the members, followed by a debate in depth. Out of the questions raised during these discussions emerged the practice of writing competitions. Members could compete against each other anonymously in providing solutions to a practical problem.[3] The Society published the presentations and the winners of these writing competitions in a bulletin regularly sent to members on duty in the provinces or unable to attend weekly meetings. Shortly before it was disbanded, Scharnhorst and the executive body contemplated creating a journal to make the Society’s ideas accessible outside the limited membership.[4]

The Military Society enjoyed such success because it touched upon a growing concern within the Prussian officer corps of the early nineteenth century. Peter Paret summarizes the attitude:

If few men in the Prussian army saw the crisis of traditional military institutions of Europe in as broad a social and political context as he [Scharnhorst], a surprisingly large number agreed with him in believing that the quality of senior military leadership in Prussia presented a problem.[5]

While Napoleon’s military genius was transforming Europe’s political and social map, Prussia still relied on an aging officer corps that some forty years previously had fought under Frederick the Great. On the eve of the disastrous Battle of Jena-Auerstedt in 1806, for instance, 27 out of 65 colonels leading a regiment were over sixty, and only 85 of 281 majors were under fifty. Harboring an exalted memory of their service under Prussia’s greatest king, few of these officers took to heart lessons about the changing nature of warfare that emerged with the French Revolution.[6] Berlin’s decision to embrace a policy of neutrality in 1796, while other European powers fought against Napoleon, hardly encouraged military reforms. Yet, many were growing uneasy, and the Military Society became a forum for their ideas and concerns. The presentations followed by lively debates tested and sharpened concepts, revealed possible pitfalls and barriers to their implementation, while also uncovering feasible ways to carry out innovations.

…the Military Society was not a network of like-minded people, but rather a forum for people interested in debating similar issues.

The gatherings had a practical function, and Scharnhorst, as the founder, had little interest in exploration of knowledge for its own sake. The members had to discuss the changes in warfare, support each other, and, although unsaid, prepare for a future fight against Napoleon. The interaction between junior and senior officers, service members and civilians, students and famed authors, royal princes and middle-class men, conservatives and reformers challenged each group’s perspectives. The general uneasiness about Prussia’s military readiness does not imply all members sought social and political change, as Scharnhorst did. In fact, many were known conservatives who nevertheless worried about the country’s ability to fight Napoleon. For example, the Military Society's president, General von Rüchel, was a staunch political reactionary. In this regard, the Military Society was not a network of like-minded people, but rather a forum for people interested in debating similar issues.

After 1806, when Prussia finally embarked on a firm modernization course, a remarkably high number of its members belonged to the reform faction and its allies. This also became the main reason why the Society was not re-established. Its leading members were too busy implementing the ideas they had explored and sharpened between 1802-1805. Between 1808-1812, the Prussian General Staff and the War Ministry, both led by Scharnhorst and staffed with members from within his close circle, continued the Military Society’s tradition of rigorous debate, innovative ideas, and forward thinking.

The Idea of Enlightened Leadership 

The essay below is a speech Scharnhorst delivered to the Military Society on the occasion of its second anniversary in 1803. In addition to discussing the education of an officer corps in broad terms, Scharnhorst explored the role of networks, mentorship, and debate in the development of military leaders.

A paradox marked Scharnhorst’s worldview. On the one hand, he believed the business of war could be learned only in war, and no amount of education could prepare military leaders for its uncertainty and complexity. Yet those who have studied and thought long and hard about war would, in general, perform better and more easily cope with its inherent uncertainty.

In his text of 1803, Scharnhorst recognized the main drawbacks in war studies of his time. Most works were—and remain—far from compelling. The often abstract language alienated some readers and led others astray. The gap between theory and practice might appear insurmountable. The application of knowledge could be delayed. Military education often strained its students’ imagination. For instance, when taught in the classroom, ideas or approaches seemed unnecessary, implausible, or dated when compared to the pressing challenges at hand; yet, just a few years later, the forgotten concepts would make a return (for instance, limited war in the age of people’s war; counterinsurgency during times of great powers competition). To overcome these challenges, Scharnhorst offered the vivid exchanges and the community of the Military Society.
“The drafting of a short essay is sometimes more useful to the writer than the reading of a thick book.”

The same pragmatic approach underlined Scharnhorst’s insistence on the importance of writing and presenting. When putting thoughts on paper, a writer is forced to examine his or her knowledge and find the gaps in it; to make choices about which arguments or facts to put forward; to think about how to captivate and convince the audience. In this regard, Scharnhorst considered writing an essential part of the military profession and a way to develop one’s critical thinking. He stated: “The drafting of a shorter work is sometimes more useful to the writer than the reading of a thick book.”

The Military Society in Berlin was not the only professional community of its time; it was not even the first one in the German-speaking realm.[7] Yet, its legacy reverberates to this day, for it gave rise to the idea of military professionalism. The success of the Prussian military reform movement, its instrumental role in Napoleon’s defeat, and the impressive careers of its members—most of whom called themselves disciples of Scharnhorst with pride—promoted the idea that daring is not sufficient to make military leaders great; they ought to also be lifelong thinkers and passionate students of their profession. 

Meeting of the reformers in Königsberg in 1807 (Carl Röchling/Wikimedia)

Notes on the Military Society’s Reasons and Purposes, and about the Means to Achieve Them (1803)[8]

Our Society has now achieved a level of consistency and a permanent constitution that is not the result of accidental circumstances.

Therefore, it is crucial for the Society to present its aspirations as precisely and in as detailed a manner as possible; this way it secures its reputation and the lasting continuation of its work. Another important point is the means on which the Society relies to achieve its goals. These not only determine the benefits the members obtain from the entity but also how long the members will engage.

To discuss in detail the first point, the Society’s goal, and to give a comprehensive overview, it is important to evoke the origins of this entity.

It is often said the officer faces a singular situation regarding education in his profession.

Anyone who has experienced even one campaign must have noticed how little he learned in peacetime about what he has to know and do on the field as a staff and senior officer. Discipline, administration, and training of troops are, admittedly, issues of high importance for the army, as its performance in war depends on them, and our monarchs, therefore, value them greatly. Notwithstanding this unquestionable significance, service in peacetime can contribute little to the education of officers in the practical experience of war.

Even extensive maneuvers are only of practical value for those officers who truly understand their application, as they represent an incomplete image of war. Their primary roles are to practice the transition from deployment to action and to teach troops how to move in all types of terrain. War alone creates the class of excellent officers, but it does so from those who have prepared for it and educated their minds. Only a few exceptional geniuses have escaped this rule.[9] If that were not the case, then experienced common soldiers and non-commissioned officers would all obtain the knowledge of and would be no different from senior officers and commanders in war.

Therefore, in 1781, Frederick the Great gave his commanders the order to encourage officers to study independently, to give them opportunities to learn, etc. It would be very suitable to read a few paragraphs from this remarkable order here: 

…When in war—already in the first year—so many officers become unfit for service and so many leave that, in a short time, the regiment’s staff officers completely change. If subaltern officers have not thought about what they would do as captains, majors, commanding officers, and generals, and they achieve this rank, they won’t know what this new position requires. There should not be a captain and a major unable to command small units, foraging, convoys, rear guard, etc….Certain arrangements belong to all these various actions, and whoever has not exercised, when convenient, to regularly do these duties doesn’t know what is best for him, as he has never thought these constitute the most significant parts of his service…And to encourage them (the officers) to study even more, the history of previous wars should be recommended…for instance the memoirs of Feuquieres.[10] 

Frederick the Great, painted by Richard Knötel. (Wikimedia)

In recent times, the need for officers to study the practical components of the art of war has been recognized by all men of expertise, and a significant number of officers have therefore sought to educate themselves further through reading after completing their basic education. This study is, however, associated with many difficulties. The application is not immediate; to some the benefit is unclear, the body of knowledge dry, and its basic concepts hard to explore.

Despair from the body of knowledge, fatigue from research, and biases in viewpoint are often the results of isolated study.

Only though a social club, only though mutual instruction and encouragement, could this disadvantageous situation be remedied—and the recognition of this need is what united us, even if we might not have articulated it from the beginning.

The results of this observation are the following:

That the officer has to study war in peacetime if he harbors ambitions for career advancement and does not lose sight of his duty;

That in the case of men in advanced age this can occur only through reading, through special study—because no other opportunity is open to them, and their conditions are specific;

That, nevertheless, this isolated study often makes fatigue and leads to biased viewpoints; therefore

Meetings, which offer mutual instruction, discussion, and diverse viewpoints—and encourage these efforts—could be helpful to the individuals in this Society in expanding their knowledge.

These are the foundations at the heart of our collaboration. We have constituted our charter and norms based on them, and we cannot say and repeat this often enough to avoid any misunderstandings disadvantageous for us.

Our society therefore differs from other academic societies, which strive solely toward the perfecting of their discipline. In our case, all efforts are directed more towards personal education and mutual instruction, and especially concerning the issues, which we cannot explore in peacetime. We turn to academic knowledge, as far as we can apply it, to expand on it without concerning ourselves with the general advancement. Our intent, therefore, is to foster among us an intellectual discussion, to give each other an opportunity to share our insight, to train our judgement through diverse and regular exchange of thoughts, to broaden our knowledge and opinions, and to collect observations and conclusions.

Therefore, our Society is directly connected to our duty and to our future service in the field. If we seek the truth, this is done only for our edification. If we seek to build upon the relationships existing among military men, it is because we treat intellectual issues with particular attention and would like to support the study of these issues.

The next topic of the presentation concerns the means the Society has chosen for achieving its ultimate purpose.

You already know them, and I will share here only a few observations.

The approach we have chosen for our exchange and study appears to fully match our intentions. In the future, therefore we have to be very careful to not forego a known advantage for the unknown with every inevitable proposal for amendment.

Under the principles the Society has listed for the fulfillment of its goals, none is more irrevocable and genuine than this: that no gathering shall occur without a lecture on some military subject. From the beginning, all members agreed to it, and we can see it is fundamental to the nature of the Society.

In practice, however, this depends on finding good military essays written by the members, i.e. on the Society’s own efforts; without them, it will never achieve the sought-after goal. Because of that, from the very beginning, the Society has often shared advice on the ways to prepare good drafts, and it appears the measures chosen have not been unsuccessful.

Never has a meeting been canceled due to lack of presentations, and, without flattering too much the writing members, I believe I can assert that your best works can be published in any existing military periodical. This fact, on which the Society can surely agree, should reassure you for its future.

Whether or not presentations have value for all members of the Society is not the main point. The presentations offer another particular and very special advantage, giving writing members the opportunity to advance their military knowledge in a manner like no other. It induces them to steep themselves deeply in various disciplines, to reread, to enrich themselves with additional information, and, more importantly, to practice the composing of texts, the logical presentation of thoughts, and the drafting of military instructions. The drafting of a report often requires a comparison of opinions and examination of statements in the primary sources. Subsequently, this builds and further develops judgement and gives a certain maturity to one’s beliefs and performance.

The drafting of a report reveals gaps in knowledge, whether in various disciplines, in presentation, or in language. The drafting of a short essay is sometimes more useful to the writer than the reading of a thick book. — These are known truths.

Based on these beliefs, the Society has welcomed reports of various types: reviews, resolutions of smaller problems, etc. The reviewer is urged not only to carefully read the reviewed work, but also to compare it with similar works. — This delights us and, through the obtained knowledge, rewards the author.

Similarly, looking for solutions to a problem gradually leads to intellectual growth, and this was one of the goals the Society declared when it was established. Thanks to this foresight, we are endowed with laudable papers, which otherwise we would not have received. Their initial objective was occasionally to provide brief replies, so those members who were limited by business and circumstances could participate.[11] As chance would have it, no such exercises were given. This has led to the decision that the executive body should prepare such opportunities from time to time.

To increase the opportunities for written work, the Society has decided to create several competitions, similar to those of other enlightened societies. In doing so, the Society hopes to further harness the creative energies and to raise the awareness of its members. It is to be expected that the writing members would devote more energy and greater efforts to a subject the discussion of which the whole Society considers important and to which it pays more attention than to another. Additionally, anonymity offers more space for the mind to wander than in those essays where the signing of his name most likely restrains the author.

In some ways, the competitions combine the advantages of keeping an author anonymous while simultaneously praising him. Here someone could try his creativity without exposing himself, and at the same time be sure his effort, when he is fortunate, would be acknowledged by the Society. Competitions have brought out Rousseau, Herder, and many excellent geniuses.[12] Unsuccessful attempts also benefit writers significantly, for they learn through research, get used to thorough inquiry, or realize in the aftermath, through other and better drafts, which paths they could have taken.

For members not contending for a prize, a competition offers more lessons than usual, too; on one hand they pay much more attention, and on the other, they carefully study the reports as they consider for which they ought to cast their votes; and since this includes reading multiple entries on the same subject, they become proficient in it. This is not the case with other essays that are swiftly devoured, and often just as quickly forgotten, without testing one’s judgement and broadening one’s viewpoint.

The competitions are not the only events that cause those non-writing members of the Society to ponder on military issues and explore principles and rules at hand; the follow-ups after the presentations serve this purpose, too. They offer members a chance to share their ideas, to exchange their thoughts about the issues discussed, and in this way evaluate them from more than one position. Moreover, the presentation of reports from authors we know has something that invites our assessment, that encourages us to devote our full attention to the presented opinion—we want to know the author’s point of view, we wish to test our judgement and insight—and in this way the debated topic enjoys even more attention.

A widely published text is of less interest for us than one known by only a few, except when, unconsciously, the thought is invoked that we could use the ideas laid out in that text, without everyone knowing where they came from, or some other secret motivation has played a role here; the truth of the matter is proven.[13] 

This is an advantage members of the Society enjoy exclusively during presentations and which, together with the previously mentioned, is of utmost importance.

The purchase of new books and their timely announcement acquaints the members with the new military literature, gives an opportunity for reading that otherwise might not occur, and encourages both informative dialog and exchange of useful knowledge. 

The conclusions and the extracts that members share with us from recent military publications reveal the prevailing spirit and the common opinion and have the quality that, even if they don’t offer anything new, still remind us of familiar notions in an interesting form. -- It’s an advantage even more appealing, for we are reminded how much we forget.

For members who have been in the Society from the beginning, the explanations of our rules given so far should be a pleasant reminder of their successful efforts; to the others, mostly for those out of town, they should serve as an explanation of the status and rules, for we cannot always share with them the prolonged debates surrounding these issues.

The Society should be proud that the arrangements made, as far as we can tell at the moment, realize the organization’s initial concept. Compared to the number of its members, no other society enjoys such significant and regular participation, and in no other does common spirit and friendly exchange prevail as it does in ours. And it even appears the love of knowledge has overshadowed all petty passions that otherwise govern people; not once have our scholarly investigations been disturbed by feud or disagreement. Based on the spirit prevailing in our Society, on the members enthusiastic endeavor to serve the common good, and on what the Society has achieved so far, we can conclude without doubt: in the future, it will fulfill its final goal in the best possible way.

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