Is Hans Delbrück worthy of this praise?

by Scott Manning on February 14, 2014

Delbruck

Why should military historians care about Hans Delbrück? Like it or not, the legacy of Delbrück as a military historian is still strong even 85 years after his death.

Before we get into that, consider some of the praise heaped upon him by other military historians, dubbing him as

  • “the first modern military historian” – Arden Bucholz1
  • “the great German military historian” – Victor Davis Hanson,2 David Levering Lewis3
  • “the great military historian” – Donald Alexander Downs and Ilia Murtazashvili4
  • “a great pioneer military historian” – John Keegan5
  • “the greatest nineteenth-century military historian” – Eliot A. Cohen and John Gooch6
  • “one of the greatest of all military historians” – R. C. Smail7
  • “perhaps the greatest of modern military historians” – Michael Howard8
  • “perhaps the greatest master in the history of warfare” – J. F. Verbruggen9

There are more, but it starts to get redundant. As for Delbrück’s work, historians believe it

  • was “a bold first step in the direction of a more sophisticated and scholarly brand of military history”10
  • is “the classic work” in the study of war11
  • “revolutionized the study of ancient and medieval warfare”12
  • “should be required reading for all military historians”13

Any historian may be content with his peers using “great” and “first” to describe his legacy, but in this case, the names behind the praise include prominent figures such as Michael Howard, the late John Keegan, and Victor Davis Hanson.

If that is not impressive enough, in 2012 West Point listed Delbrück alongside Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, and Thucydides in its Top Ten Military Classics, making him the only twentieth-century historian to receive such a recognition.

Yet with all this appreciation, understanding and quantifying Delbrück’s influence on the military history field becomes difficult, as most historians are content simply to heap on lofty praise and then move onto the next topic.

For now, we will do the same and provide a deeper look at Delbrück’s influence on current military historiography in the next article.

Footnotes

  1. Arden Bucholz, Delbrück’s Modern Military History (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 1. []
  2. Victor Davis Hanson, Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power (New York: Anchor Books, 2002), 166. []
  3. David Levering Lewis, God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215 (New York: W. W. Norton & company, 2008), 173. []
  4. Donald Alexander Downs and Ilia Murtazashvili, Arms and the University: Military Presence and the Civic Education of Non-Military Students (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 298. []
  5. John Keegan, The Face of Battle (New York: Penguin, 1978), 31. []
  6. Eliot A. Cohen and John Gooch, Military Misfortunes: The Anatomy of Failure in War (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 38. []
  7. R. C. Smail, Crusading Warfare, 1097-1193, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 8. []
  8. Michael Howard, The Causes of Wars, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), 191. []
  9. J. F. Verbruggen, The Art of War in Western Europe During the Middle Ages: From the Eighth Century to 1340, 2nd ed., trans. Sumner Willard (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1997), 2. []
  10. John E. Jessup, Jr. and Robert W. Coakley, A Guide to the Study of Military History (Washington: Center of Military History, 1988), 78. []
  11. Theodore Ropp, War in the Modern World (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 11. []
  12. Stephen Morillo and Michael F. Pavkovic, What is Military History?, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Polity, 2013), 35. []
  13. Brian Todd Carey, e-mail message, October 23, 2013. []

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Joan Manel Ramírez February 14, 2014 at 1:21 PM

These last years I’ve been reading the volumes of Delbrück’s History of the Art of War and wrote a critical review for every volume – in Spanish-, except for the IV that I’ve not read yet. My intention in this reviews was to show which aspects of Delbrück’s work are actually outdated – or not.

There is a link to the review for Volume I. You can click on the other two reviews in the pingbacks linked in the comments:

http://diariodelibros.wordpress.com/2012/09/30/history-of-the-art-of-war-vol-i-warfare-in-antiquity-por-hans-delbruck-resena/

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2 Scott Manning February 14, 2014 at 1:56 PM

Joan, thank you for sharing. I am bookmarking this for later.

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3 Joan Manel Ramírez February 14, 2014 at 1:26 PM

Although my opinion on Delbrück is very critical, I must remark also that reading his “History” was a great historiographical exercise :-)

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4 David Ulbrich February 14, 2014 at 1:31 PM

It is also worth considering how much Delbrück influenced the late Russell F. Weigley’s seminal book _American Way of War_. This set the parameters for debates and inquiries into American military history since its publication in 1973.

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5 Scott Manning February 14, 2014 at 2:32 PM

Superb point, David. I think this is but one of the clear examples of how Delbrück’s work continued to influence the field well after his death.

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6 Theodore Savas February 14, 2014 at 1:50 PM

Yes. Delbruck was a revolutionary thinker, who used his logistics (and other) expertise to evaluate prior history and debunk or at least seriously challenge it. Anyone who challenges orthodoxy in a meaningful and intelligent manner deserves our praise.

Of course, the Japanese have a saying: The nail that sticks up higher than the rest gets hammered into place.

I look forward to reading your follow-ups.

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7 JoeD February 14, 2014 at 1:50 PM

Great list of quotes! I think the praise is warranted. I’ve read his work. Enjoyed it. I don’t cite it as evidence for anything, but it helped fill in the blanks for a lot of things. Much of it was written in tandem with his students, which few people remember. He was a great synthesizer. Others have tried to produce similar works with arguably decent results (Archer Jones comes to mind). While his work may be dated, he has clearly influenced the field. Hell, we’re still talking about him 85 years later!

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8 Scott Manning February 19, 2014 at 10:07 AM

For those of you that might have missed it, I posted the second installment: Hans Delbrück’s Timeless Principles: Troop Estimates, Topography

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