Germans and China

I have been reading Isabel Hull’s Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of Total War in Imperial Germany Cornell, 20051 I was mainly interested in the book for its treatment of the Boxer Expedition, but the book in general is about the evolution of ideas about war in German military culture. She sees the colonial wars in China, Southwest Africa and East Africa as being very important in the development of German concepts of war and above all treatment of civilians.

I found this interesting not only because there is stuff about the Boxers. Everyone knows that German military advisers were very important in China and that Chinese military culture was heavily influenced by Germany. Everyone also knows that Chinese troops, especially warlord troops, were notoriously brutal towards non-combatants and generally inept at dealing with the civilian population. I would have attributed the bad behavior of warlord troops to their poor training, inadequate supplies and lack of modern military professionalism. After reading Hull I think that much of the military professionalism that China would have been importing would not have done much to remedy these problems

The Boxer War is one of Hull’s key bits of pre WWI evidence. German troops in China behaved pretty badly. Although there does not seem to have been a specific order given to exterminate all Chinese2, lots of Chinese, especially men, were summarily executed. The Germans did little of the actual fighting before the relief of the legations, but were the most enthusiastic about punitive expeditions, which were little more than troops roaming the countryside killing Chinese. Looting was discouraged, which made the Germans better on this score than most of the Allies. Rape was common, and the German forces in China managed a venereal disease rate of 140%.3 The Boxer expedition was fairly ad-hoc, but by combining it with the colonial wars in Africa, especially Herero War, she finds a number of characteristics of German military culture, almost all of which seem to be exactly the same as in China.
-Lack of concern for the well-being of civilians and P.O.W.s. This is to some extent universal to all armies. If you want promotion you a better off with the war record of General Patton than that of Colonel Klink. Still, the Germans seem to have been worse than most other European armies at this.

-To some extent this lack of concern with P.O.W.’s was part of a larger lack of concern with planning. Like most European armies of the late 19th century the Germans were convinced that future wars would be extremely short. The German Army was perhaps worse than others at preparing the logistical and command needs of protracted war. Planning for anything other than actually fighting was very sketchy as all of that was seen as a sign of “British Commercialism.” If a war did not end quickly German troops would start requisitioning supplies from the population.

-If long term planning and organization would not win wars what would? “restless energy, boundless initiative, inordinate capacity for suffering, and blind self-sacrifice, matched only by the willingness to sacrifice others.” She points out that the great model of the war in SW Africa was not “Franke’s relief of Omaruru. Accomplished with few resources, much bravery, and only seven deaths, this battle saved the strategically important railroad for German use. But Frank was an old Schutztruppler, not a regular officer; and, besides, he survived.” Instead the Germans valorized Captain Klein, who’s pursuit of an already-dead enemy chieftain across the Omaheke Dessert was a monument to the ability of brave men to overcome suffering. The fact that it failed and was known to be pointless even before it started did not make Klein’s march less admirable. Like the Long March it took its meaning from the suffering of the men involved, not from any military importance.

-Her description of the convoluted command structure of the Imperial German Army (p.12) makes it sound almost like Chiang Kai-shek was in command.

-The Germans also displayed quite racist attitudes towards all non-whites. Not really a match to China here.

It’s not really a China book, but for those interested in the development of military culture in China (and maybe also in Japan) it is a good read.

  1. One of the great things about the modern, internet, age is that when you find an interesting book you look it up on Amazon to see if they have a table of contents. They often have a used copy, in this case for 8 bucks. 

  2. given later developments in Germany she is very interested in the evolution of exterminationism, and it is interesting to see that while William Rowe has found lots of sources for exterminationist ideas in China, it may have been imported as well 

  3. p.151 


  1. It is not a coincidence that the Chinese military culture is similar to German. Many Chinese military leaders were sent to Germany and Russia for their education. The Chinese army was fashioned according to German army before WWII, and Russian army after WWII.

  2. Let’s not forget that the Americans contributed their share to the uplift of civilization, which in this case meant devastatating large areas of the countryside, confiscating property to compensate Christian victims of the Boxers, and a certain amount of just plain killing. The classic commentary is Mark Twain’s “To a Person Sitting in Darkness,” available at several places on the internet (just search the title).

  3. The whole issue of the Boxer War is fascinating. I am collecting references like this one to German behaviour, as part of the research for a book on the armies of the conflict. I assume an awareness of the Kaiser’s infamous ‘Hun’ address to the German troops leaving for China – it must surely have influenced the behaviour of the troops, as it would have sounded like it legitimised brutality towards the Chinese?

    One aspect I am trying to improve upon in the book is the hitherto over-emphasis on British and European involvement in the Boxer War. I am trying to remedy this by giving them much more emphasis. The challenge is proving to be accessing primary sources, as I do not speak or read Chinese or Japanese.

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